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.
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.