Do you know what you were doing ten years ago? Thanks to this blog all I have to do is pick a month and I can find out; it’s always worth keeping a blog and then you have something sensational to read on the train…
So here it is; this time ten years ago I was… on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square doing yoga and poetry. It was an amazing day, a positive tsunami of circumstances conspiring to create an event which involved a CND minibus with a dozen or so people scooting down to London where Bruce Kent andKate Hudson joined us and I had a brilliant time doing yoga and poetry. So check out all these posts from that time:
So how has it been, this week of practising patience? Well, I have to report that the Caffeine Withdrawal Bill did not pass its first reading in Parliament and as such has been ditched. It caused an immense headache (quite literally) and such lassitude that I lost the will to carry on. Like Spike Milligan I woke up the next morning with the letters T-E-A etched on my eyeballs and, reader, I caved. But other than that I have made progress.
First, as with all such things, the problem is to remember. All too often you have to reach the point of boiling exasperation before it comes to you that ah, yes, you were supposed to be practising patience.
One of the most important disciplines I’ve found is the practice of now. No matter how screwed up things have become, no matter how far you’ve let things slide, the time to change isnow. Not tomorrow, not when you feel better, not when you’re in a more positive frame of mind but now; start practising patience right now, even if – especially if – you don’t feel ready. To paraphrase Yoda, ‘do or not do; there is no ready.’
One technique I use which I didn’t mention before is Narrating Your Life. I find this very helpful if my mind is running on ahead, thinking of the next thing and the thing after that and what’s happening this evening and not focussing on what I’m doing right now. When that happens I start to narrate my life, for example, thus: ‘I am climbing the stairs. I have a tray in my hands. I feel the weight of the tray. I am aware of my head rising up. I can feel the stairs under my feet,’ and so on; and before you know it the seemingly dull and mindless activity of bringing the tea upstairs is accomplished. It’s amazing how many things you can find to notice if you try. Have a go right now. What are you doing? Where are you sitting? What can you feel under you, around and above you? Be aware of your feet, your buttocks, your hands. What are you holding? What are you touching? What is the air temperature like? How is the light?
One yogi master (I forget who) said this when asked about the main points of yoga:
What is the most important aspect of yoga? – Attention.
What is the second most important practice of yoga? – Attention
What is the third most important practice of yoga? – Yep, you’ve got it. Pay attention – not in a stand-up-and-salute-an-officer kind of way but gently, bringing the mind to bear on what is happening right now. Otherwise life passes in a blur of anticipation, never being present in the moment.
Impatience, like many other habits, can be hard to eradicate. When publishing yesterday’s postI found myself getting all aeriated when the button up the top (for some reason the very word ‘button’ makes me feel impatient; perhaps it presses my buttons) said ‘schedule’ instead of ‘publish’ and I wanted to publish the post and it did publish it so why didn’t it say publish instead of schedule? I caught myself getting impatient about this and said to myself, ‘slow down. It’s fine. It really doesn’t matter.‘
So here, from the depths of my hard-won wisdom, are five strategies to develop patience.
Step One: Cut out caffeine. Yesterday I decided to forego my mid-morning pot of tea and have roibos instead. I don’t drink a lot of tea but caffeine is a known stimulant which can only exacurbate the problem of impatience, so it might be a good idea to give it a miss for a while, which means this week I shall be mostly drinking roibos.
Step two: get back into practising meditation. This has gone by the board in recent months, partly because I’ve been sleeping better and partly because I can’t be bothered, but the effects are deeply salutary and tend to counteract impatience.
Step three: when in a queue, use the time well. Next time I’m standing at a checkout or waiting for the lights to change I shall do something useful. This has to be an activity which can be laid down easily, so checking your phone is probably not the best idea (it’s illegal in the car anyway) as about sixty other kinds of impatience can begin to sprout from whatever it is you may find there and you can get involved in conversations which distract you once you reach the nirvana of the beeping terminal. Something mental would work for me, such as reciting a poem in my head (one I’m trying to learn as I learn all my poems by heart) or remembering some Spanish or assembling some ideas for a blog post. Chanting mantras is a good idea (mentally if you’re in the queue, out loud in the car) and a deeply calming mantra such as So Ham or Om Nama Shivaya can really help with the surges of irritability. Visualisations can also work; a calm sea, a deep forest, a blue sky. You could also try listening to calming music or sounds like the ocean or whalesong; there are a million of these apps out there but the thing is to pick one and stick to it. Here’s one I like:
Step four is to walk more and drive less. I have a vague general aim to do this anyway under my climate change agenda but driving less will definitely help with impatience.
Oh look, there were only four in the end. But they’re good ‘uns.
When I was a youngling people used to wind me up by saying ‘patience-is-a-virtue!‘ whenever I got impatient about something. But regardless of their sing-song self-righteousness, patience is in fact a virtue and one that’s in short supply right now. I’m not boasting here (really not) but my brain works very fast and zooms ahead of me all the time, so I find it hard to be patient. This means I need to practise all the harder because being on your toes and frowning all the time is not a good look, nor does it make for a happy and peaceful life.
Everything in our modern world conspires against patience. Driving habituates us to speed (or the expectation of speed) so that when stuck in traffic we paw the ground and snort like a bull at a gate; similarly because supermarket checkouts can process items very quickly we resent standing in a queue and waiting – as I was the other day – for some woman when her shopping had been beeped through to pack it all away and rummage in her bag for a purse and find the Nectar card and then the sodding bank card and then REMEMBER THE PIN NUMBER!!!!!!!! A lot of deep calming breaths did I practise but I was still impatient and she felt our impatience and smiled at the snorting queue and said ‘Sorry, more haste less speed’ and clearly felt so bad about holding us up that, reader, I was ashamed. And when subsequent to that event I found myself on the road wishing a cyclist weren’t in the way and indulging fantasies of knocking them off their bike (only momentary, you understand, but still) I thought, ‘My dear woman, you have to seriously take yourself in hand’. And so I do.
Computers are of course a key factor in this. I find it very hard to focus on one thing at a time and if a page takes more than a few seconds to load or hassles me with adverts and cookie declarations (please click on C is for Cookie, that’s good enough for me and while you’re about it would you like to take your survey? No thanks)then I find myself getting very impatient.
Enough! This must and shall stop. So, how does one practise patience? I am reminded, dear friends, of a character in La Pestewhose idea of making the most of time was to stand in a long queue, wait till you are at the head of it, then leave. No, on second thoughts I don’t think that’d work. So, how do we do this? First, I shall walk more and drive less. That will take out one plank of this buzzing edifice. Next I shall learn to value waiting. Look around me, take in my environment, think some thoughts, maybe even start a conversation, recite a poem in my head or chant a mantra or write some thoughts in my notebook but anything that not only passes the time – for that is half the battle – but values the time so that you regard it, not as time wasted but as time spent.
What would be a useful way to spend time, say, in a supermarket queue? Imagine you’re several shopping-loads short of a checkout and it’s going to take a while, what can you do? Well, instead of watching each beeping item inch down the conveyor belt (cuddly toy, cuddly toy) some useful thoughts and ideas might ensue. This would I think involve entering a different frame of mind from the usual Sainsbury’s-consciousness. Of course another way would be to avoid supermarkets altogether. Wouldn’t that be nice? I’ll update you as to how my patience practice evolves, now hurry up and post some comments!
I have a great deal more to tell you about What I Did On My Birthday and which books I’ve been reading but that’ll have to wait for another day.
I always thought The Inklings was rather a twee name for Tolkein and Lewis’s little club of authors but this hasn’t stopped me subscribing to the Daily Inkling. Neither a newspaper of Narnia nor a broadsheet of Middle Earth, this is a series of daily blog prompts which, as I mentioned the other day, are a useful back-up for when my brain is running on empty.
Yesterday was unusual: I dropped in to vote in the European elections (please God don’t let Farage win, he’ll be unbearable. I mean more unbearable…) and stopped off at the library to return The Horse and His Boy. I’ve decided that reading fantasy, particularly children’s fantasy since the adult kind seems to be focussed on clashings of swords and bucklings of swashes (ooh, now at my back I hear a gathering army of protestors, speaking of Pratchett and others I haven’t read. So be it) where was I? Yes, reading children’s fantasy books in bed is a great way to get to sleep. Paul McKenna advises not reading anything before sleep besides his book, but the habit is too deeply ingrained for me to give it up. However, I recognise that a Rebus or a Nicci French is probably not the best thing for inducing a peaceful drowsiness, so I hit on the idea of fantasy. I began with Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner and then went on to the Narnia novels. I’m now beginning His Dark Materials. What’s important about these books is that they transport you to other worlds, meaning that you are already in an almost trance-like state by the time you slot in your book-mark and turn off the light.
This was leading on to something… oh yes, today’s blog post prompt. What was it again? ‘How important is physical fitness in your life?’
Well, yoga is very important. I guess you get more attuned to your body the more you do it, but it beats me how people can survive without a good daily stretch. If I miss it even for one day I feel stiff and listless because yoga not only stretches the muscles and joints, it raises the kundalini, the vital energy that keeps us all going and without which we are running on empty. This is why so many people drink coffee whereas in yoga stimulants are strongly discouraged (I have tea in the mornings and herbal infusions after that.)
But the missing dimension to yoga is a good cardio-vascular workout. Unless you do a number of rounds of surya namaskar (about which I have mental blocks as I’ve mentioned before) you don’t get many aerobic benefits. So whilst I go for a brisk walk sometimes and dig the garden most days, it probably isn’t enough. But I can’t bring myself to jog or go to the gym so the occasional zumba session to youtube videos is as far as it gets.
There. That’s today ticked off. Have a good Bank Holiday weekend.Oh, and the book I borrowed from the library? The Silence of the Girls.Was it any good? I couldn’t stop reading it. And that was yesterday.
I’m back on the yoga philosophy trail again and I caught myself wondering this morning as I hovered on the edge of discipline looking into the chasm of dreariness, where does healthy self-control end and Professor Gradgrind take over? I know it happens but I can’t quite figure out how.
The yoga term for self-discipline – I was living in Spain when I discovered this and it seemed highly amusing – is tapas. This is an individual process rather than something imposed from outside, though external disciplines can help. When I was living in the yoga centre I learned a great deal about myself, particularly that I was not good at getting up at six a m. Then again, getting up at six did help me to push the boundaries of my life. That was a good discipline. On the other hand asana sessions always began with several rounds of sun salutations which at that time I found utterly crippling. Had I been given some modifications I might have found a way into this practice; as it is, even today I still have a mental block about it.That was not a good discipline.
Discipline from outside is a double-edged sword; you have to know what is enough and what is too much. Over the years I’ve learned to take what helps me and ignore the rest, because in the end what matters is self-discipline. If you can’t control yourself you’re in deep trouble– or everyone else is: look at Trump.But here’s the rub: how much discipline is enough?
When I began writing full-time like most people I had trouble getting into a routine. So I imposed one and made myself work from nine till five with timed breaks for tea and lunch. That was fine initially but after a while it exhausted me because that inflexible routine ignored the real patterns of creativity. Sometimes I need to sit in the garden and think. Sometimes I need to read or go for a walk; some days I must finish early or go mad. Then again there are afternoons when I write, oblivious of time, until I’m called for dinner (I know – lucky me not having to cook.)*
Routine is a good servant but a bad master; in the end you have to follow the river of art no matter where it leads.
*Every woman at some point has to stop writing and put the dinner on. That is her tragedy. No man does: that is his.
WordPress has just informed me that it’s eleven years ago today that I started this blog; which means it’s eleven years ago yesterday that I attended a workshop run by Hanif Kureishi and asked his advice on what aspiring authors should do to help the process along. ‘Start a blog,’ he said; and having conducted extensive research (well, I asked OH) I set up an account on WordPress and Bob was most definitely my uncle.
Eleven years, eh? You’d think I’d want to embark on some sort of retrospective; high points and nadirs, most popular posts, top comments, that sort of thing, but frankly I’ve no appetite for that. I would like, though, to think about what this blog has meant to me and what benefits it has brought to my life and writing.So here, for your delectation and entertainment, are my five best things about blogging.
Number One: Readers. As a writer (unless you are writing only for yourself) you need readers, otherwise you’re like an actor without an audience or a priest without a congregation. True, one of the best things about writing for me is that no-one can stop you doing it. I may be ignored by the whole world but as long as there’s breath in my body and sparks in my brain, I will carry on writing; and a blog has the potential to find you readers even if they don’t immediately hook up. Sometimes I get comments on posts I don’t even recognise because they’re so old. Once a post is out there, anyone can find it: I’ll never forget that early thrill of finishing a post and clicking ‘publish.’ At that time I’d hardly published anything in print, so that felt really good.
Number Two: Interaction. Most days I have some interaction with readers either ‘liking’ or following me, and I love getting comments. Reading and responding to comments can spark dialogues and often takes me to other blogs where I can like and comment and follow, and so it goes on. Even though OH is just a shout away, writing is essentially a solitary activity, so this interaction is valuable.
Number Three: Expression. For decades I wrote all my poems, ideas and stories in a series of A4 notebooks but now, if an idea is sufficiently developed, it can go on the blog. I used to suffer a lot from not having outlets and now I have one. It also encourages me to find new and more interesting ways to express myself.
Number Four: Development. A blog gives me practice in writing about all sorts of subjects: it’s primarily about a writer’s life but any topic which occurs to me can be the subject of a post. I’ve developed ideas about politics, I’ve described walking holidays, I’ve reviewed films, books and TV series; I’ve delved into philosophy and religion and I’ve transcribed dialogues between myself and OH for your delectation and amusement.
And finally, Cyril… Number Five: Routine. This may sound horribly worthy and dull, but it’s very important. Practice makes permanent, as they say; and as anyone knows who has suddenly retired from a 9-5 job, it’s hard to motivate yourself without structure. As it happens my working day has evolved over the years to mimic office hours. No fevered early-dawn scribblings or midday doldrums for me: I get to my desk at around 8.30 and work till lunch (12-1-ish). After lunch is usually a ‘dead’ time so I’ll do some gardening or walk to the shops; then it’s back to work between 2 and 3. Finishing time really depends on how it’s going: on a good day I’ll work till six but it’s usually around five as mornings are the most productive time. I don’t work evenings or weekends and I take Bank Holidays off, as I do the whole month of August. This doesn’t mean I don’t write anything – in some ways these are the most productive times – just that I don’t work at writing. There’s a big difference. But it can be hard to establish a routine, and in those early days, writing a daily blog post was an important discipline for me. Nowadays I don’t necessarily blog every day but I don’t like to leave it too long otherwise readers can drift away.
So there we are; eleven years of bloggy wisdom. Enjoy. Oh, and the picture is a rather gap-toothed version of me doing a victory dance after performing poems on the Fourth Plinth.