The first week we spent some time writing letters to a distant friend-our very own heart. This week we are going to go work on taking a step closer to your heart. We are going to do this by exploring something you and your heart have in common: the inability to stay in the present moment.
For years, I have been frustrated by the Buddhist-like recommendation that I learn to be fully in the present moment. Every time I have ever tried to get the hang of "being here now" I found that I was unable to do it. My grip on the present moment always skittered away like a spilled blob of mercury.
I put this failing down to my mind being filled with untrainable monkeys until I found myself in the Dallas Airport reading a passage from Theodor Reik's excellent book, Listening With the Third Ear.
In a section called No Place to Hide he says he believes that it is hard to make connection between your heart and your head because of the "...many threads connect one thought to the preceding and the following ones".
To illustrate the slipperiness of the mind to the presumed reader of this text, he suggested that the reader might find it informative to sit somewhere and quietly describe exactly what he sees.
As an example, he wrote:
"What are my thoughts at this moment? I see the pussy willows on my book case ... a prehistoric vase ... spring, youth, old age ... regrets ... the books ... the Encyclopedia of Ethics and Religion ... the book I did not finish ... My eyes wander to the door ... A photograph of Arthur Schnitzler on the wall ... my son Arthur ... his future ... the lamp on the table ... What a patient had said about the lamp once when it was without a shade ...the table ... it was not there a few years ago ... my wife who bought it ...I did not want to spend the money at first ... she bought it nevertheless ...
"There are my thoughts as I should tell them to a person in the room to whom I have to report them the moment they occur. It is clear that most of them are determined by the objects I see; the connections between them seem to be made only by the sight of the objects and by thoughts of the persons they remind me of. Some, as for instance the two sentences, Encyclopedia of Ethics and Religion -- the book I did not finish and pussy willows -- spring -- old age -- regrets, do not follow the same laws of association, it would seem."
And then he went on to edit these paragraphs, filling in "the marginal thoughts" and the fringes of those thoughts. Theodor Reik explained: "It is also difficult to give an adequate impression of the rich life on the margins and fringes of the thoughts." He went on to say that to fully understand the ramifications of the moment, one must go back again and again and expand upon the sketched in thoughts in order to fully explore what takes place beyond the center of the mental activity, to bring those unborn thoughts and impulses to the daylight of conscious processes and to convince oneself that these ideas have a right to exist and to be considered.
As I read, I found myself caught up in his excavating of his experience of sitting in his office, I found myself anxious to try his exercise myself; anxious to get out my trusty yellow tablet. I felt sure that if I were to following his instructions, I might learn how to really see the place that I was in at the moment.
So I took up my pen and began to write. I noted that I was in the Dallas airport, and that I was surrounded by sound-people moving rapidly from one place to another. Near by, a child was laughing. I looked up to see a four-year-old boy in his Dr. Dentons, (pajamas) for it was night and the sky outside the big windows was dark. And it would be late when my connecting flight finally came to ferry me to Austin where I would meet my brother and talk about the care of my father. The little boy was amusing himself with the formal wood railing that separated his section of the waiting area from mine. I supposed his mother was the woman reading in a nearby chair.
I admired that he was such a good little curly haired boy that his mother could count on him to stay close by and entertain himself. I watched him peering over the top rail, between the horizontal rails and under the bottom rail. I couldn't make out his game. I thought of my friend Carol and knew that she would catch his eye, and join him in whatever game he was playing.
Carol has a way with strange children. I just admire them from afar. And to be honest I do that by choice. I think she only gets to play the games she already knows ... which may not be true ... she seems to know a lot of games. Surely she didn't come knowing all those games. But, for whatever reason, I like to watch children entertain themselves and yet keep my distance. I think I am always afraid I will have to spend my life playing cats cradle in an airport with a stranger's child. That thought threatened to take me all the way to the train in Scotland and a baby that looked like Charley Brown in the cartoons. I reminded myself that the task at hand was to be in the Dallas Airport, so I dragged myself back...and noticed the familiar feel of the red plush chairs, so like the seats in the old Paramount Theater, only modern, and low backed...and the dog eared copy of Listening With the Third Ear resting on my computer case.
Were I to want to carry on with Theodor Reik's exercise I would have to tell myself the story of my joy at finding that out of print book in a used bookstore. My triumph of owning it and being able to read it, although my advisor had refused to lend me his copy, ostensibly because the writer was Freudian, but quite likely because my advisor had had a run of students not returning books he lent them.
To be honest, I have never carried this exercise through his succeeding steps- of going over what has been written and filling in tangential observations that I had noticed flashing in my mind as I wrote. I am happy enough with the way the first level helps me find my current place of being joined in my mind with the totality of my experience and the people and experiences of my life.
The alternate exercise that I suggest is called Following the Golden String. At various times and in various places I have heard it ascribed to Robert Bly, Bill Stafford, John Keats, and others. This particular version of the exercise as written up here was presented to the Rusk County Poetry Society by my brother, Jack Kennedy, and subsequently modified by Jean Emerson.
Following the Golden String
A Writing Exercise in taking the time to tap into the ever present gifts
from your pre-conscious mind
I give you the end of a gold string.
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate
built in Jerusalem's wall.
Jerusalem by William Blake
William Stafford used this verse from Blake as a basis for a writing exercise he called Following the Golden String to Jerusalem. As he read this poem it meant that if you follow any thought far enough, carefully enough, it will lead you ultimately to some surprising enlightenment. Every thought is connected, ultimately to all other knowledge. You begin winding the thread up -- putting it in order -- patterns begin to emerge. The little thread leads onward.
William Stafford believed that when you first wake in the morning, you are still in contact with your pre-conscious mind, and that if you jot down the first word or phrase that comes to your mind, you will hold the key to self knowledge in your hand. He advocates writing down these early morning gifts from the subconscious on a scrap of paper you placed beside your bed the night before. Later in the day at your leisure, take out the scrap of paper and hold the words lightly in your mind and allow your mind to follow whatever path the words lead you down.
Nils Peterson did this exercise every day for a year. He wrote some amazing poems from the work he did with the free-writes. (As an aside. I once took a poetry class from Nils. I was sitting a couple of rows behind him on a bleacher and I saw how he abstracts poem from free-write. After he has written for a while, he takes his pen and circles phrases that he finds interesting. Then he copies down these phrases, makes arrows to denote the proper order for the poem and then copies down the result into a poem. That may not be the way he works now, nor is it necessarily the way he always worked then. But, it is an interesting way to play with the words. I do it sometimes. And, I look at odd blurts of writing I have done and think ... ah, yes. If I took the time ... The trick is to take the time.)