Archive for September 6th, 2018

Cotton Merchants in New Orleans – Degas (For source of image see link)

The bees of my reflection had been busy gathering insights from the flowers of other writers’ gardens and I was poised to begin pulling them all together into a blog sequence about Emily Dickinson – a close follow up to my ramblings about the value of the feminine perspective, when I was derailed. Nothing unusual there, then, I know.

This wasn’t just a penny on my line of thought, though – more like a tree. And that’s a carefully chosen word, as you will see. No rhyme intended.

When you read something that confirms you in your struggles, the exhilaration you feel is amazing. A few days ago, thumbing through a magazine I receive in hard copy, before recycling it I had one such moment when I read Victoria James’s words:

Psychology writer and Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman . . . recently spent three hours standing in front of a painting, Edgar Degas’s Cotton Merchants in New Orleans. “I spent the first 45 minutes regretting the choice. It’s just three men in a room. There’s not enough going on. It’s claustrophobic. You feel jumpy at first. You feel like you’ve got to be doing something more productive. It gets harder and harder – and then, after a while, it’s not so difficult any more. The second hour is much harder than the third.”

Burkeman is not a masochist of a peculiarly artistic stripe. He was intrigued by the practise of a Harvard art history professor, Jennifer Roberts, who sends her students to stand in front of an artwork of their choosing – just one – for three hours. The goal, he explains, is to discover “whether, at the end of it, you’ve achieved insights that you wouldn’t in a shorter period of time”.

What Burkeman found was that he was discovering details in the painting that a cursory glance simply didn’t reveal: “Deliberate ambiguities. Shapes that echo other shapes. Aspects that seem almost like an optical illusion, when you give it your full attention.”

Fascinating in itself, the experience also furnishes an excellent metaphor for what we can do, when we stop trying to do everything. “The reason that patience and stillness are so important right now,” says Burkeman, who is working on a new book about time, “is that the whole direction of culture is the opposite. You’d think we should be able to relax – we’ve got technology to do things and do them faster. But that is exactly nobody’s experience. The faster that technology drives us, the more impatient we are.”

In a moment I will try and explain why I reacted in the way did, what it was exactly that derailed me.

It certainly had nothing to do with my Jackson Pollock moment sometime in the 60s in the Tate (there was no Tate Modern in those days). An art teacher colleague of mine was dismayed that I did not like Pollock’s technicolour holographic snail trails. He took me to a gallery and stood me in front of a painting more than twice my size and insisted that I stand there looking at it for at least half-an-hour, which I dutifully did. Sadly, its beauty continued to elude me.

I’m sharing that to show that I was not primed by prior experience to enthuse at the idea of standing in front of a picture for three hours, watching dry paint. A lot of related water has passed under my bridge since the Pollock disappointment, though. And that’s where some of my more recent experiences come into the mix.

Pond near Adhisthana Buddhist Centre

Recently, I was asked to run a workshop for an interfaith day at the Adhisthana Buddhist Centre near Ledbury. I used a method of engaging as a group with spiritual texts, pioneered by the Bahá’í community of Colombia, that I heard about more than twenty years ago. I call it something like consultative reflection.

This is the method we used. The topic was Emptiness and Silence.


In turn each person reads a quotation out loud. The one who first reads the quote acts as a group leader for the consultation on that quote.

First, people ask for or offer clarification of any words that are difficult to understand.

Then each person re-reads the quote before sharing one response (s)he has to the quote. Every one in turn expresses their responses to the quote in this same way, whether as thoughts, feelings, intuitions or whatever. All group members should at least read part if not all of the quotation even if they feel they will have nothing to share after doing so.

This goes on until all the members feel they have said all that they wish to say or time has run out. There are no right or wrong answers during this process. It is an opportunity to reflect deeply and share the result.

Efforts should be made not to respond to what others have said but simply to focus on one’s reaction at the time one reads the quote again. Attention should be paid to what implications the quote has for our own lives and to suggestions as to how we might apply what we have learned.

The group leader’s only job is to see that everyone follows these rules, i.e. reads the quote or at least part of it prayerfully and shares one (and only one) response without referring to what others have said!

And this is the quote we focused on:

The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.

It’s from theTablets of Bahá’u’lláh  – page 158.

The time was too short for each group to work on more than this one quote.

The reaction was intriguing but not unexpected as I’d used this approach before. People to begin with were somewhat incredulous, even impatient with the whole idea. Why would you keep reading and re-reading the same words over and over again in this way? The words were simple and the text was short. Surely we’d all got the drift the first time round.

I had explained the need for patience so this diverse group of people persisted for more than half an hour. At the end, the majority sat there stunned.

‘Wow!’ is a one word summary of their reaction.

‘That was amazing! I never realised that there was so much to understand in that short quotation,’ was one person’s view. ‘I’m going to do this again with my friends.’

‘Can you do it by yourself?’ another asked.

‘You can,’ I responded, ‘but it’s harder to keep going without the combined energy of a group. It has the same effect though if you do.’

I did the same exercise a fortnight later in Wales at a weekend school using the title Gardening the Heart. Same results though again there were one or two people for whom it never clicked. But, as I am not a believer in the dogma that one size fits all, that didn’t surprise me either. What was perhaps more surprising was that by far the greater majority once more loved it and got the point big time.

It’s important to remember though that it only works if the group sticks by all the rules for the whole time.

Where this took me next I’m saving till next time.


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