Seaglass and the quieter mind
Script: Richard Lewis
Music: Richard Lewis
Producer: Oliver Feldman
In this episode:
- Find your true self
- Pay attention and start noticing
- Quieten the mind
- Choose your focus
I remember exactly where I was when Elvis died. I was sitting in the wide, open-plan kitchen of a log cabin on the Norfolk coast of England, anticipating a cooked breakfast. My godfather’s family and mine had come away to this place for the summer. Through the window I could see the broad, flatline of the North sea horizon, the steel-blue promise of the water, the waving of dune grass and teasel.
Our fathers were in the kitchen, behind a wooden breakfast bar, like joint captains of an ocean liner, frying tomatoes and bacon. The announcement came over the radio and there was a flutter of words, a shock wave.
I was six in 1977. It was the year Presley died and Punk was born, but that changing of the guard would turn out to be of little significance in my own story. I had no idea who Elvis was then and, even today, I’ve never looked into his life or his work.
There are junctures in your life’s narrative, I feel, when you have a choice to follow either one line of inquiry or another. Turn left or turn right. This was one of them.
We finished our breakfast and walked out onto the beach, which stretched into hazy ambiguity both north and south, covered with pebbles, that clacked as we walked across them in our flip-flops and rattled as the waves threw them about on the shore.
My godfather told me there was treasure on the beach.
“The best thing you can find,” he told me, “is find a stone with a hole right through.”
“But what could make a hole in solid rock?” I asked.
And he told me how the ocean, washing over the rocks, threw sand and grit and grains of seashell against the rock. It would only take a tiny part of a seashell to lodge in a little crack and the ceaseless churning of the waves would carry it right through. It might take a million years.
There was a small explosion in my mind then. As suddenly I realised I was part of a universe of infinite size and age.
And that was that. I knew where I would walk in life. I turned away from the chattering on the radio and chose instead to walk towards the beautiful chaos of the Earth and the ocean.
Hunting for that treasure kept me busy for the whole day.
If I’m honest, it’s kept me busy all my life.
I live and work by the beach, and I go out most days. I walk for 30 minutes on work days and up to two hours on weekends, along the tidelines, hunting for holed stones and sea glass. These are pieces of glass whose sharp edges have been wholly smoothed and rounded by the ocean. I take them home and make jewellery out of them, a perfect wind-down activity if you work with your brain all day, or staring at a computer screen. I turn up all sorts of other treasures, too. Carnelians that glow in the sunlight with iron-rich silica. Yellow aragonite and limestone fossils. Pure white chalcedony and dark red jasper. Petrified wood, pieces of ancient forests, burnished by tides without end. The beach is littered with them, but you don’t really notice them unless you decide to look at each stone.
Recently, someone said to me: “How do you find so many?” And the answer is always the same: because I pay attention. I decided the stones were important. So I decided to pay attention to the stones.
The act of hunting for needles in haystacks demands my full presence and attention and in these precious moments, all other cares slip away. My mind is quiet. I am outside my duties and tasks. I am outside the narrative of my life and something else begins to shine. Something closer to who I really am, something closer to my true self.
Kids love the idea of finding treasure. Over time, I have come to wonder whether the treasure is the stone itself, or whether the treasure is the gift of time that I give to myself. Time, devoid of past regret or future worry. Time without the endless droning internal narrative of my responsibilities and insecurities talking to me and chiding me: the thing so-and-so said to me that made me feel this way or that, the bill I didn’t get paid on time, the thing I wish I hadn’t said, the place I was meant to be, what did he mean by that, does it mean I’m getting fired? Will I get fired and lose my flat and become homeless and lose my children and die … ? The endless fight or flight warnings from the basest part of our brain.
If you give this radio chatter your attention all the time it becomes your identity. If you decide to, you can simply become one with your own internal monologue. And if you do this, you will wake up one day and say to yourself:
“How did I get here? How did my life become this everlasting list of tasks and duties, this litany of comparisons, sorrows and chores. This daunting future of more of the same?”
And it’s easy to see how this could be an overwhelming burden of thought.
But there are moments, I feel, in your life’s narrative, when you have a choice to follow either one train of thought or another.
You decide whether you want to be an Elvis person or an ocean person. Whether you want to be the lawyer your parents expect you to be or the writer you always yearned to be. Or, you know, vice versa. There’s no right answer. It’s about whether you want to listen to your ego or spend time with your true identity.
Your ego is always comparing you to others and measuring you against them. Your ego is always telling and retelling its own life story, reframing things and people with you at the centre. Your ego is constantly trying to satisfy the ambitions and identities projected onto it.
You go to school, so you’re given a pupil’s identity, which others ask you to live up to. But that isn’t who you are, it’s what you have to do.
You work as a doctor, so you’re given a doctor’s identity that your patients, the law and the profession require you to live up to, but it isn’t who you are. It’s what you do.
You become a parent, so your child and your family and society and the law all give you a parent’s identity. But it isn’t who you are. It’s what you do.
You probably do it well. Most people try hard and succeed well at the identities they assume. So well, often, that they forget that this is not identity. It’s responsibility. Responsibilities are important, of course. Without responsibility we couldn’t trust our parents, doctors and our airline pilots. But responsibilities are also riddled with conflicts and adversity.
I want to be a great parent, you might say, but I don’t have the money to give my child everything I wanted to give her. If only I could work more hours, or get that promotion and take on that new identity of senior project manager or consultant dermatologist or headmistress or astronaut. Then we would have a better future. So I work and work and I pass my diploma and I receive my promotion and now I have the money. But now my work is so demanding that I don’t have time to spend with my child. What will she think of me? If only I hadn’t taken on that job. And so it revolves: regrets about a past you can’t change and fears about a future yet to emerge.
Here’s what I’m getting at:
Think about the last time you dealt with someone in customer service or administration and got frustrated because felt you might as well have been dealing with a robot. We’ve all had this kind of exchange: “Computer says no. It’s coming up cancelled. You’re not on our database. That’s not our policy.”
These are the people who refused to go to work. They did not want to wake up, so they did not wake up. They did not want to go to work, so they did not go. They sent a shadow, a cypher to work and remained in bed, hiding from daily routine.
And then there are the times when you stumble on that one person who says “Hullo, My name’s Nathalie, I’ve looked through your file and I can see where the problem happened and the way we can fix it is this.” And then they take ownership of your problem and move it through to a resolution.
Remember that person? How they made your day by showing up and giving the whole of themselves to the job they were doing? The whole of Nathalie’s true self showed up up to that job, even though Nathalie may have other worries, even though Nathalie may not be making ends meet at the end of the month, or may be actively looking for something more inspiring and better paid than solving your insurance claim query or bank transfer snafu. Perhaps Nathalie would rather be in the garden, planting a row of azaleas, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter, in that moment, what Nathalie thought of her job or her office or her boss; she decided that the whole of her was coming into work today and she as going to solve your problems as though she were hunting for the best spot to plant her flowers.
And thank heaven she did.
So what if all of us were present as our true selves in every moment? What if, instead of sending the shadow to our job, we sent the real version of ourselves? What if we sent that person to work on the vacuuming and the dishes and every other task and chore?
The late Dainin Katagiri had this to say on the subject:
It is easy to become fed up with daily routine. You do the same thing, day after day, until finally you don’t know what the purpose of human life is. Human life just based on daily routine seems like a huge trap. We don’t want to look at this, so we don’t pay attention to daily routine. We get up in the morning and have breakfast, but we don’t pay attention to breakfast. Quickly and carelessly, we drink coffee and go to work.
But if you don’t pay attention, you will eat breakfast recklessly, you will go to work recklessly, you will drive recklessly, and you will go to sleep recklessly. Finally, you will be fed up with your daily routine. This is human suffering, and it fills everyday life.
In Walk One I talked about Rousseau and his book, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, how it tells of Rousseau’s social exile and his walks around Paris. In his second walk, Rousseau says this:
I give free rein to my thoughts and let my ideas follow their natural course, unrestricted and unconfined … These hours of solitude and meditation are the only ones in the day when I am completely myself and my own master, with nothing to distract of hinder me, the only ones when I can truly say that I am what nature meant me to be.
So all of this begs the question: so what is my so-called true self?
Let’s try to find language for it.
Finding language is what I do all day. I work as a writer and I’ve worked as a writer for over twenty years. It’s my main source of work and income and it’s what I spend most of time time doing. Now, I know it’s a job many people aspire to, a vocation for some, a dream for many more, and so you might think that writing would be absolute heaven for me. You might think that this would be where I feel closest to my true self.
But it isn’t. Writing is a lovely and fulfilling job but also a cognitive challenge. Even when I’m dealing with a subject that really inspires me in life, finding language is a daily struggle that feels like work. Because it is work. Writing is part of a daily routine that I work hard at. It’s hugely rewarding and it’s work that I’m proud of. But it doesn’t come close to defining me.
I’m also a musician. I wrote the music you can hear now. That’s a far deeper passion that I have never sought to turn into my full-time job. I don’t do it all the time and it’s only ever made me small amounts of money. It’s not part of daily routine. It’s a refuge, more than anything, and one I cherish. But can I define myself as a musician?
The essence of who I am and what truly makes me tick can be found when I am still and hunting for stones and sea glass. Or when I am playing music, entranced by the sounds.
These are the moments that calm the inner voice and leave the essence of my self to live in the moment and enjoy it for all that it is, as long as it is.
These are the moments in your life when time stands still. You are fully present.
You see, the six year-old version of me was completely happy. Scrambling over rocks with his father, looking at starfish and pebbles. There wasn’t a trace of anxiety for the future, no regret for the past. There wasn’t a hint of melancholy and certainly no fear. Just endless marvelling and delight in a continuous stream of present tense.
What he doesn’t understand is why I left him there on his own. He doesn’t understand why I forgot about him, abandoned him there on those rocks? He waited a long time for you to come back and he’s hurting. Why did I do that? Why do all of us do it?
The truth is that when we’re growing up we can’t wait to denigrate and shrug off last year’s version of ourselves in the great rush to adulthood. The important thing is — don’t leave the six year-old you there anymore. Or the eight year-old you or whatever age it was. The person you were then, when you were carefree, before you started trying on the robes and mantles of responsibility, that’s who you really are.
Don’t beat yourself up about it. Abandoning your true self is an inescapable part of growing up. You can’t escape everyday routine. I once met a couple who’d thrown everything up to live on a canal barge and be free. I met them in a car seat factory in Leamington Spa. We were working there. And they just moaned every day about the pain in the neck it was to black the hull and get their licences and moorings and keep everything afloat. So, we’re all in the same boat. The thing is to realise, now, that you left your self behind and go back and get yourself. Then bring your true self along for the ride. That is all he or she wanted.
When writing is your job then it can easily become as much of a chore as any job, from washing dishes to punching theatre tickets. The way that I get through a day of writing, is by bringing that boy on the beach to work with me. He and I are the same, it’s not just a nice memory of childhood, it’s the same continuous stream of consciousness as it always has been and he and I set to work on the writing as though we are hunting for stones. We throw words at the page and sift through them until we find meaning, rhyme and reason. That’s our version of beach treasure. It allows us to apply the same diligence to — and take the same joy in — the conversion of thought into prose and prose into meaning as we do in unearthing a pale red carnelian.
And that is how you can tackle anything that seems like a chore. You bring your true, original self right into your routine.
The important point is that we can neither escape everyday life nor ignore it. We have to live by means of realising the original nature of the self right in the middle of daily routine, without destroying daily routine, and without attaching to it.
About ten years ago I was walking down a country lane on the way to a beach on the south coast of England. I was walking with a woman and her two daughters. As we turned a bend I caught a flash of blue as a bird took flight, over the hedge and across a field.
“Oh!” I said. “It’s a jay!”
And my friend rolled her eyes.
“What?” I asked. And she tutted.
“Nothing. Enjoy your little bird. Who really gives a shit?”
I looked at her for a moment and said: “Why would you say that?”
And she took a deep breath and exhaled her frustration:
“Because life’s not about the little tweety birds, is it, life isn’t Disneyland, life’s a pile of crap full of bills and sadness. You’re not in reality.”
And I thought about it.
And I thought: well, I can’t think of anything more real than a bird flying across a field.
But I knew what she was saying. She was saying that she felt bad and that she wanted her focus and mine to be on the things that made her feel bad. She was saying that she was angry at me for finding my own personal moment of happiness in the midst of everything that was bringing her down and that my finding my own personal moment of happiness in a jay was not only trivial but a kind of betrayal.
What she hadn’t grasped was that I was dealing with the things she called reality. I was holding down a boring job, I was paying the horrible bills, I was dealing with all those unpleasant and soul-deadening things. I just didn’t consider them to be worth more than cursory focus. Because I had already decided where I wanted to put my focus. Because no one and nothing can deaden your soul without your consent. Not without your collusion.
Rousseau put it like this:
In this I way I learnt from my own experience that the source of true happiness is within us, and that it is not in the power of men to make anyone truly miserable who is determined to be happy.
Of course the reverse is true, also. It is not in the power of men, certainly not this one, to make anyone truly happy who is determined to be miserable.
But my friend’s point of view was one I understood. Because we can’t choose when the crows descend. They’ll just come, to burst your bubble and they won’t ask permission and they won’t ask if it’s convenient. They’ll settle waxy wings and cast their shadow over everything you do and everything you are, stifling hope, joy, imagination and future. And when that happens, it may not be easy to scare them off. It may not be easy to refuse them, they won’t simply be shooed. But the moment you say they can’t be shooed away, or shouldn’t, is the moment they settle in for good.
But there are moments, I feel, in your life’s narrative, when you have a choice to follow either one train of thought or another. Are you going with the crows or are you going with the jays? And if you want to, you can become a jay person. And it isn’t easy, to change your mindset from that of the person who is one hundred percent certain that reality is the stuff that brings you down and the rest if fantasy, to that of the person who has chosen an alternative reality. Because it’s like unplugging from the matrix. Turning the world upside down. But you can start with a single action. The moment a crow thought enters your mind, you can say no. I’m a jay person. Replace the thought, turn black to blue. You will have to force it at first. Almost against your will. You’ll feel stupid. But in time it will become habit. In time it will become automatic.
And you won’t bury your head from the challenges that you face. But you’ll change the kind of thought you are going to give focus and attention to.
And you’ll think: that sounds all very well. But how is it achieved?
It’s partly about learning to control your cognition, your thinking. So much of what flickers across the cinema screen of our inner life is random. Electrical charges, millions of them in any given day, firing at random. But what we latch onto is not random. It’s choice. It’s about understanding and realising that we choose which of these electrical charges we will hold onto and give our time to.
It’s partly about learning how to quieten the mind. It’s hard at first to decide to empty your mind of the chatter, from the regret of memories and the fear of future trauma.
So we have to find a way to trick the mind into doing our bidding. That’s part of what we’re doing right now, with this walk and this discussion. But when the thirty walks are over, what will be your sea glass?
What will be your practice? What will you do time and time again that allows you to live free of the burden of past regret and future anxiety?
In the last episode I told you that I would share with you the advice I had given to dieters on a website who had lost their way. Well I’ve stripped that advice down into thirty shards — and this is shard two: find your sea glass.
Perhaps the chatter quietens when you work in the garden, or when you write computer code. Perhaps you just like driving. It doesn’t have to be a creative pursuit, just something you do that makes you feel good about yourself right now. Not tomorrow, not a year from now. Just that one things that makes your insides a little warmer.
Whatever it is, you need to find your sea glass and walk decisively towards it.