For book lovers, being stuck in a place without something good to read can be a painful affair. I found myself in that position recently in the remote, small town of Buncrana, Ireland.
I finished the books I had on hand and had no success finding anything interesting in the disorganized book bins of the “Charity Shops” on Main Street. A kind soul told me there was a funky used bookstore in Letterkenny, a larger nearby town. Fortune smiled on me because just then a bus going to Letterkenny rumbled down the street. I flagged it down and off I went. A car would cut the travel time in half, but lacking a vehicle I resigned myself to enduring forty-five vacant minutes on the bus without anything to read.
Once on-board though, my attention was piqued by the other passengers. There was a young couple in lively conversation. The woman’s speech was clear enough, but the man’s rapid and thick Irish brogue was as indecipherable to me as Swahili. It was fun trying to speculate on what he said by what she said.
We passed a bus going in the opposite direction. Our taciturn driver and theirs exchanged a polite wave. How do I know it was a polite wave and not the wave of old friends, or of rivals, or of brothers? I don’t. I wondered what the two men’s stories were.
An elderly man sat a little ahead of me across the aisle, silent and motionless. Suddenly he lifted his head in time to see a small stone church with a graveyard pass by. Communing with a grace or a grief known only to him, he gently crossed himself.
This led me to direct my attention to my own inner world. Why was I even on this bus? Oh yes, book hunting, but why? It’s fun, but what was I really after? The joy of reading and learning? The avoidance of boredom? Maybe, but there was something else. As I thought about my need to read, a fifty-year-old memory startled me.
When my older sister first went off to kindergarten, I was bereft. To console me my mother took me on walks through the neighborhood, saying, “Let’s see if we can find something important!” This was great fun. My little world came alive with the thrill of the hunt as I focused my attention on items I usually ignored. I picked up a bottle cap. “Mom, is this important?” It was important to my sister, who used bottle caps for her artwork. Into my pocket it went. There’s a stick, twisted in a weird way. How about a soda can? No, not a keeper. Finding a penny was like gold.
Pondering this memory while on a bus rolling through the Irish countryside I entered into an extraordinary feeling of connection with my mom and with my curious younger self. Surely in my present book hunt I was reenacting something, likewise hoping to “find something important.” I felt full and rich as I sat with these feelings linking past and present; a small but pleasing insight into my current behavior. Whatever mental state this was – excitement, contentment, love – I was in a good place. This bus ride was anything but vacant. The thrill of paying attention coincided with the joy of discovery; the delight of finding meaning and value where I previously thought there was none.
The gentle sweetness of this recollection reminded me to regard my attention as a precious thing, and to be more selective about where I placed it and not to squander it. This can be quite a challenge in a world that presents so many options for what to look at, listen to and think about. It is far easier to passively respond to whatever presents itself the loudest or most urgent. This passivity can foster a sort of “learned helplessness” leading to a dependency on the loud and urgent for motivation.
A common example: a man is unable to complete an assignment until the deadline looms, thus creating an artificial urgency without which he can’t command his energies and focus his attention to complete the task. The man insists he “needs” the tyrannizing last minute pressure, because without it he believes nothing is happening within himself to draw from.
There are times in my day I am tempted to think nothing is happening, like when riding a bus or being in between this or that activity. This practice of directing my attention to the present moment, what is going on around me and within me right now, has proved to me that in the spaciousness of the human body and soul there is never nothing happening.
Practicing this attentiveness, sometimes called mindfulness, requires effort, but what a thrill when our powers of attention grow strong and nimble and can be employed freely. Perhaps the common usage of the term “will power” is better understood as attention power. This is a high order of freedom when achieved through natural effort. Yet the process can seem puzzling: I am doing something intentional, but I’m not fully in charge of the outcome. It is not the same as fantasizing or daydreaming as there is more discovery than creation going on, more surrender than orchestration.
This cultivated inner space has become a mental and emotional sanctuary for me; partly a place of refuge and also a place to do active work, seeing what’s there and trying to understand it. It is a safe place where I can “find something important” among things previously ignored as insignificant or too unpleasant. There I discover a need of mine that goes well beyond my immediate desires: the need to read the self. This kind of sanctuary is sometimes bittersweet, but even then it is a lovely and meaningful place to be. And, I believe, it is within the reach of every person.