I was born in Kenya and we didn’t have a TV or computers or any other technical distractions. So my mum taught me to read at the age of 3, and it is one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given.
I learnt to lose myself in books. I learnt to speed-read. I learnt to read selectively for academic study. But the most difficult form of reading, and perhaps the most important, is to learn how to read mindfully.
Mindful reading is different. One way I learnt this, and am still learning was through the slow prayerful reading of sacred text that is lectio divina. This slow form of reading is repetitive, lovingly repetitive. It is meditative and contemplative.
I also learnt a lot about reading mindfully, and was inspired to read in this way by Miriam Darlington’s lyrical Otter Country. We can read other texts that inspire mindful reading; it doesn’t have to be Scripture.
In fact I take Otter Country with me wherever I do a retreat or listening day or seminar, and I read sections to illustrate mindful reading, and mindful attentiveness through observing the natural world.
One of the main practices of A Book of Sparks: A Study in Christian MindFullness is mindful reading. On page 25 I wrote:
‘As we read each day, I would encourage you to read slowly, and mindFully; the very process of this type of reading can bring us into a place of awareness and attentiveness…’
This is not as easy as it sounds. This is mainly because we are trained to read in another way. I came across this quote about mindful or contemplative reading which explains this beautifully:
‘Finally the weekly reading assignments are subverted through the introduction of a contemplative reading practice. Rather than aggressively reading to have knowledge and gain ‘truth,’ participants learn a method which is a being with, not a doing of the text – an embodied, not a cognitive encounter.’
We are so used to aggressively reading as an act of doing of or to the text, we do not know how to be with the text. Especially text that does not immediately surrender its meaning.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) talks about learning to shift from the doing mode of mind to the being mode of mind. We are culturally conditioned in particular to inhabit the doing mode of mind. Our aggressive reading of texts reflects this. The shift to being happens through mindful awareness practices, meditative practices. One such practice, I believe, is mindful reading.
 Donald McCown, Diane Reibel & Marc S. Micozzi, Teaching Mindfulness (Springer, 2011), p. 160.
Kurt Jackson, the painter. He has a way of seeing things at different levels to most people. It includes wilderness, reams, angels, medicine walks and memory.
This his link: http://www.kurtjackson.com/index.html
Let me give you a quote from Miriam Darlington’s blog http://wild-watching.blogspot.co.uk/:
‘I’m standing beside a gate, screened by some sallow and oak branches. A movement on the water. The size of a water vote, but with a wake. Henry Williamson, who wrote “Tarka the Otter” and spent many years down at otter-nose level, called it a ‘ream’. Half way between a ripple, and a beam of light.’
Kurt Jackson is someone who sees ‘reams’. They are there but often invisible to the clothed eye. It is not just in landscapes we find them. There are reams with people, ripples and beams of goodness. In every day there are reams of God, ripples and beams of presence.
Annie Dillard in her book Teaching A Stone To Talk has a chapter in it ‘A Field of Silence.’ At the end she writes, ‘There are angels in those fields, and, I presume, in all fields, and everywhere else. I would go to the lions for this conviction, to witness this fact.’ (p.136)
When I look at Kurt Jackson’s paintings I understand what Annie Dillard is saying. Jackson’s paintings are bathed with the light of angels, but not fluffy, chubby angels but angels that make you write, ‘Holiness is a force, and like the others it can be resisted. It was given, but I didn’t want to see it.’ (Annie Dillard, pp.134-135)
Wilderness psychotherapy sends children and others out on medicine walks. As I look at Jackson’s paintings I end up walking in the landscapes. But it is a medicine walk.
There’s an idea in NewScientist of 6th October in their memory section, that memories are very important in shaping our happiness or sadness, ‘Our memories act as a kind of ballast that holds us steady in times of stress…’ (p.38). ‘Over-general memory’ as it has been called, where people ‘paint their past in broad brush strokes’ (p.39) but don’t remember the details can be linked to depression. As I gazed attentively and openly at Jackson’s paintings I found memories rising to the surface, happy ones. I found awarenesses of oneness, and unity rising to the surface. The paintings became a medicine-walk.
Slow down and look at Kurt Jackson’s paintings today- take a medicine walk amonst the reams of angels.
‘The wild otter I saw would no doubt be out of the water and making tracks to its own musky holt, to curl belly upward, in a home of roots, peat and rocks. I imagine him enfolded in his fur, dreaming of water; a tight sleep-knot, enjoying the deep sleep of one who exists totally in the moment.’ ( Miriam Darlington, Otter Country, pp.40-41)
‘Up and down the banks are the complex root systems of ash trees, which otters particularly love to use as holts as they provide hidden shelter and easy access to water.’ (Otter Country, p.175)
As I read these words I imagined the roots of the ash tree making a coracle, floating the otter to sleep in its hidden shelter. So I drew this as a coracle sleep-knot.
The ash tree root
for the otter
of the wild
not going meek and mild.
I’ve been re-reading Miriam Darlington’s luminous book Otter Country: in search of the wild otter, published by Granta Books.
I noticed two phrases I hadn’t noticed first time:
‘Ash trees are most popular with otters because their roots from a complicated system of shelter below ground, and re often right by or even overhanging the water, so that the otter can slip subtly in and out.’ p.77
‘Up and down the banks are the complex root systems of ash trees, which otters particularly love to use as holts as they provide hidden shelter and easy access to the water.’ p. 175
I have been entranced by the otter following Miriam Darlington’s description of them, where it as if she has become the otter. I have been left wondering if the otter is at increased risk and threatened by the Ash tree crisis? They live together, the ash tree and the otter.
Does anyone know?
Rare sharing OtteR tracked to British Library. Read about how OtteRs share their country with us in Miriam Darlington’s Otter Country and how we can share their country with them. For OtteRs swim where they will.
Miriam Darlington, a poet, has written a beautiful book called ‘Otter Country – in search of the wild otter’, published just recently by Granta. It is a book to be read slowly, with a chocolate-covered cappucino and lemon tart. Perhaps only a chapter a day as a treat to be savoured and tasted.
I have read just the first three chapters so far but I am captivated. Like all good poets, through awareness, attention, and observation she has got under the skin of the otter. Miriam, along with all poets and nature writers is mindful of nature, and demonstrates that mindfulness is a universal human capacity. Within our mindful brain we all have the capacity for wise present-moment awareness that sees far and true.
Her words melt the padlocks of your mind and suddenly you are free to slip into the book as the otter slips into the river or the sea. Read it and see again.