Making Space for Contemplation

On Saturday afternoon, I went to a poetry workshop in Hastings. Over a three hour period we read and discussed six poems by the writers Elizabeth Bishop and Mark Doty.

Obviously, I attended workshops and seminars as part of my MA, but those sessions were shorter, and we would get through a lot of material; we were also dissecting the poems, seeing how they worked, rather than considering their effect. Sitting with six poems over ninety minutes, sometimes in silence, was a powerful experience.

The poems themselves were incredibly moving, but new depths emerged as I sat and reconsidered them. It made me think about how rare it is to make so much time for art, to sit with it rather than liking it and scrolling on. To allow the space for ‘eternity in an hour’. And that led me to thinking about how novelty overwhelms me in terms of culture: the new-but-mediocre takes space that could be used up for revisiting things I already love. Consumption drives out contemplation.

There is a great quote in the film ‘About Schmidt’ about losing sections of your life just through not thinking about them – are there memories and experiences I would benefit from thinking back to?

There’s a lovely blog post by Cal Newport, summarising Robert Hassan’s book Uncontained. Hassan travelled on a ship from Melbourne to Singapore with no digital media, few books and a different language to most of the crew. Faced with “endless hours with nothing concrete to do”, Hassan says

I began to think about my own history and my life and things that have happened and to begin to explore those memories [and] think about what was around them, what was behind them, and I began to make discoveries. It is amazing to think that [these details are in] there, in all of us, mostly undisturbed unless we devote the time to concentrate and go looking.

The descriptions of how Hassan spends his time are powerful, falling naturally into a pattern of bipshasl sleep, and taking a chair apart and putting it back together. Rather than being bored, Hassan concluded that he would do it again. A similar story was told in the guardian recently, when Mark O’Connel spent 24 hours sitting in a forest clearing as part of a “wilderness solo”.

Finding such space in normal life is not easy when there are so many finely-tuned distractions; but attending that workshop was a good reminder of the depths of engagement that are possible when we give things enough space. The question is how to do it.

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