I slip into the silky dark waters of the swimming pond on London’s Hampstead Heath, on a misty October morning. The water is bracingly cold and it takes me a few strokes to catch my breath. But I’m in and it’s like swimming in the earth itself, immersed, cradled, held by the planet that gave me birth and will one day take me back again.
In the inky water, in moments, the feeling of separateness I carry with me everywhere unravels and with it, I stop being afraid.
The strong and convincing feeling of separateness is, for many of us, one of the unquestioned givens of life. It’s rooted first in the way our bodies are separated from one another by the physical rupture of our birth, after which what seems to be ‘me’ ends where our skin meets air. It’s reinforced strongly in the culture of individualism and detachment in which we live. And although there is truth to it – we each follow a course through life that in many ways is ours alone – our sense of being separate fuels much of our fear, and our grasping, and our loneliness. Because as well as wanting autonomy we long to be held, and met and seen, in ways that our commitment to otherness from the world can’t address.
This is what I remember most fully, every time I enter the water. I am water, earth, air and sky. My earth-made body has already charted a course from infancy to adulthood that is shared by every human that ever lived long enough to do so, and will age and eventually die of its own accord. It is a body which was gifted to me by billions of ancestors without my say-so; a body which has contours, shapes, organs, possibilities and preferences I did not choose, that come from this giant endeavour which we call ‘being human’. I remember again that the separate self that seems so obvious to me is also an expression of something that dwarfs me, includes me, and brings me forth, vast in time and mystery and breadth. And that it is such a relief, and such a joy, to have found a reliable way to remember myself this way.
In the very last room of Olafur Eliasson’s beautiful exhibition (on at the Tate Modern in London until January) there is a pin-board spanning one entire wall. It is perhaps 50 feet long, and is filled with articles, clippings, images and notes that inspire Eliasson’s work. I’ve been spending some time there over the last few weeks, in the room of notes, letting the ideas and observations that are collected there sink into me, work on me, change me.
It’s been far from easy to do this. I can see that I am deeply affected, as so many of us are, by the narrative of productivity, of ever-more, of perpetual motion that permeates our culture. We are taught never, really to stop and look, to be still enough until the world can reach us, unless of course our stopping is for the sake of having more energy to get going again. We learn to be afraid of being unproductive, of open-ended, undirected time, of letting ourselves off the hook. We measure ourselves, relentlessly, by comparison with what-has-not-yet-been-done.
And although our ceaseless movement comes from fear, it serves perhaps as an attempt to protect us from bigger fears – the fear that we may not be totally in control (we’re not), the fear that we might be vulnerable (we are), the fear that things will happen that we didn’t choose and didn’t want (they will), and the fear that we’ll lose what we’re so desperately pursuing. We move without stop because we’ve been taught to, but also because it does something for us. The tragedy is that this frantic way doesn’t resolve or deal with what we’re afraid of. It just has us find ourselves further from the one life that we get to lead.
As I sit quietly in the room of notes I notice how much of this I feel. I can feel my being afraid. I can feel the push of my own inner criticism as it berates me for being here, for slowing down, for slacking, for being self-centred, for irresponsibility. I can feel shame, guilt, comparison, urgency, and a fizzing, clenching movement in my chest, shoulders and back. All of it cries ‘get moving’, ‘get out of here’.
But I stay. I breathe, and breathe, letting myself open and settle on each breath. What a miracle breath is. I let myself feel my feelings all the way through. After a while, I see that my fear and urgency is something that I am doing, not something that is happening to me. It’s a strategy, a habit, a way of trying to keep myself on familiar ground. And when I see that it’s something I’m doing, I get to see how much of my experience can be like this – not just what’s ‘arising’ but a way I’m actively committed to fleeing from contact with my actual life.
In the middle of the pin-board I see an except from some work by Claire Petitmengin (more on her work here). She writes:
I consider the loss of contact with our lived experience as the main root of the malaise that affects our society … We become blind to the very texture of our experience … cutting ourselves off from what is closest, most intimate to us. We become blind to the very texture of our experience. In particular, we live in the illusion of a rigid separation between an inner and an outside world, between ‘me’ and ‘you’, between body and mind, between seeing, hearing, touching and tasting.
We spend considerable energy trying to maintain these frontiers, which we consider essential to our survival.
In the rare moments when our tensions dissipate, these rigid boundaries fade, opening up a vast space. We can sometimes have a glimpse of this … One day there is a book, a song, an encounter, or a special light in the morning through the foliage, and suddenly you surrender, you lay down your arms. Recovering contact with this tender dimension is a huge relief. When we are less on the defensive, less anxious to protect our borders, we become more loving. We regain our integrity, our dignity.
Claire Petitmengin From: Open House, Studio Olafur Eliasson, 2018
And I come to see why I am here in this gallery. I am here to find a way to relax some of my frontiers, to surrender, to lay down my arms. Art can do that for us. Words can do it. Other people can do it. And we can do it for ourselves, with some courage, and some kindness, and if we’ll let ourselves.
In these times when we’re walking around like coiled springs, when we see disaster around every corner, when we wonder if we’ll have a future – or if our children will have a future, Petitmengin’s words remind us that practicing letting life is no abdication of care, no unearned luxury, but a vital discipline in returning ourselves and one another to the dignity and capacity we’re all called to bring.