mindfulness

The memory-map

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The first thing I painted was the 14th-Century chateau, one night after we had explored it with our friend Tonia. We’d set out early that morning with a backpack stuffed with chopped vegetables, bananas, baguettes and the homemade koulourakia we’d baked the day before from a Meals in the Mail recipe, to walk the ramparts all the way around town.

At the chateau we stopped to catch our breath and polish off our little lunch, sitting on the ancient stone wall amid glorious pink and red flowers, before buying four tickets at the gate and heading inside to explore. The chateau is formally known as “donjon de la duchesse Anne,” or “the keep of Duchess Anne,” a woman beloved as a ruler and protector of Brittany from 1488 until her death, as well as being Queen Consort of France (twice).

Today, her keep is almost empty: no roped-off antiques or baltic pine replicas here, just empty rooms with carved shutters half-closed over diamond-paned windows. It made space for the ghosts, and we could almost feel the past walking among us in those empty rooms. We climbed the narrow spiral-stone staircase up, up, wandering the rooms where once the Duchess Anne ate, conversed and slept, until we emerged to blinding sun and gusting winds on the roof. Then we headed down. Down, down, into the smoke-stained ‘dungeon’ of a kitchen, where there were no windows and Tonia and I had to use our iPhones as torches so that we could all make it down the final flight of stairs without breaking any limbs.

At various levels (especially in the guards’ rooms), medieval toilets were cut into the stone and, from the smell, were still occasionally in use. We only just - with seconds to spare - managed to stop four-year-old Ralph from doing the same, and the laughter from our little party at this lucky escape carried us all the way back to our still-new (to us) apartment.

So later that night, when the children were sleeping the deserved sleep of the utterly exhausted and Tonia and I sat up eating cheese and drinking rosé, I drew the chateau on the blank paper of my future map, and wrote our little story down next to it.

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Piece by piece, as we built memories, I added them to the map. Picnics at the nearby ruins. Baguettes from our favourite boulangerie. Trips to Saint Malo, le Mont Saint Michel, and Broceliande. The carousel the children loved to ride, where first Scout announced, “Our town is amazing!” The church with the bells that punctuated our days and nights with such beauty. The big, old English sheepdog we called Sarah, from that time I said “Look, that dog has it’s hair up” and Ralph replied, “How do you know it’s called Sarah?”

Painting at night after each adventure, there wasn’t any strategy or forethought to the map, and this made for lots of mistakes. I painted the Thursday markets one evening after carrying home the week’s bounty, and, a few days later, drew in the clock tower behind it after we had climbed to the top. Then a month or two further along, when I decided I needed to paint in the grand old buildings that lined the market square, the clock tower was already in the way. In my painting it has grown legs and journeyed a full block away from the rue de l’horloge, where it stood since 1498. I drew Sarah the dog before adding in the buildings around her, and it turned out she was not even remotely to scale. I had accidentally turned her into a canine giant, eclipsed only by the baguettes, which are the size of some houses. Saint Malo was on a wonky slope, the abbey at Lehon slid over onto the very bottom of the paper, and a strange, ibex-like creature on the carousel loomed over everything else.

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The mistakes have come to be my favourite parts of this map. I could have waited, of course, collecting these moments in my mind to faithfully reproduce them back home. Carefully copying or tracing a roadmap of Dinan, and then plotting out our favourite memories with both accuracy and artistic arrangement.

In fact, that was my original intention in making the map. After taking multiple wrong turns when trying to follow the map of the ramparts given to us by the Dinan tourism office, Tonia and I joked that I’d paint a more accurate one, and give it to them when we left.

But the best adventures are unplanned and precious moments come unbidden. And if you don’t stop to notice them when they happen, those moments can journey on by, altogether unseen.

So I chose mindfulness over method, thankfulness over design, and pasted my little acts of gratitude like patchwork all over the paper, living each drawing in the moment without pausing to plan the final piece.

When we left the village in December, I didn’t know what to do with the map. The handmade paper was so thick and large it couldn’t fit into a tube, so I carried it with me from Dinan to Paris, Paris to London, London to Cumbria, Cumbria to Inverness, Inverness to Edinburgh, and Edinburgh to Melbourne, Australia. After we returned home, it lay rolled up and forgotten on the sofa-bed in our front room for a month, buried under clothes awaiting dry-cleaning, until finally in mid-February I uncovered it and found the time - and emotional fortitude - to finish what I had started on that hot summer’s day at the chateau, back in August.

So here it is, in all its wonky, unplanned, mistake-ridden, navigationally-bereft, emotionally-rich glory. The story-map of our sabbatical in France, and a pen-and-paint act of thanksgiving.

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Mindfulness walking

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Recently on our morning walks to school, Scout and I have started practising what we call 'mindfulness walking'. Essentially, it is paying attention to our senses while we walk, rather than allowing the path to roll away underneath our feet, unnoticed.

It starts when I ask a simple question: "What can you see?" 

We get all the obvious things out of the way first: trees, cars, houses... but then slowly we start to really notice what is around us. A man carrying what looks like a very heavy stack of metal poles, on his shoulder. The way the wind makes the leaves on a gum tree in the middle of a roundabout sway like a dance. A cloud that looks like an elephant wearing roller-skates. 

I ask, "What can you hear?" We walk a little further, hand in hand. 

A drill from a nearby building site, passers-by talking to one another. A flock of birds that swoops past, screeching. We continue walking. "I can sort of hear the wind pushing past my ears," Scout says. I say, "I can just hear our footsteps." We start to notice other things: the hum of an air conditioner on a building, a helicopter in the distance, the clanking of unseen dishes inside someone's house, the soft whoosh of bicycle tyres as they pass us by. 

I ask, "What can you smell?"

We smell car exhaust and the tinder tang of fired metal on the building site. Fresh coffee. A garbage bin. We stop and crush leaves between our fingers. "Lemon!" cries Scout. And then of another, "Um, kind of herby?"

Mostly we are at school by now but if there is time, I ask, "What can you feel?" The way the ground under our feet changes from smooth footpath to uneven cobblestones to sand to spongy grass. The warm sun on our faces. The cool breeze making goosebumps rise on our arms. The fabric of our clothes: is it soft? Or scratchy? A pebble in my shoe. School bag straps chafing shoulders. 

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Of course this is more than a pleasantly curious way to pass the time. What Scout and I are practising on these walks is mindfulness in its most basic and simple of forms. We are simply paying attention, without passing judgement. And there is something rather special to be said about paying attention, being present in the moment, and indulging in some good, old-fashioned curiosity.

There are loads of benefits to practising mindfulness and I'm sure you've heard them before. Things like reduced stress, improved memory, better focus, and less emotional reactivity. But what these walks are also doing is giving our brains some exercise in the area that houses the 'salience network,' a network of brain circuitry that helps us decide what to pay attention to, and what to ignore. This process is called 'latent inhibition' and it just so happens to have a big impact on creativity, an area in which I work and teach. 

Latent inhibition is our subconscious deciding what, from the cacophony of sensory stimuli that we are exposed to in any given second, to take in, and what to ignore. Imagine if our brains gave equal weight to everything we saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted, at the same time, all the time. The world would be almost unbearably loud and bright, something I imagine akin to standing in the middle of the traffic in the middle of New York Times Square during rush-hour (and possibly just as deadly). I've heard that some research studies have linked a reduction in latent inhibition to psychosis, and that doesn't surprise me one bit. 

On the other hand, a conscious, deliberate, mindful reducing of our latent inhibitions, during something like a mindfulness walk, can be powerfully beneficial. A research study of individuals with high IQ scores found that those who were also classified as "eminent creative achievers" were seven times more likely to have low, rather than high, latent inhibition scores. As the researchers put it, people who were less likely to classify sounds or objects as irrelevant were at an advantage when it came to producing creative, original content.

So by the simple act of paying attention during a walk, Scout and I are exercising our brains, and giving them permission to notice and give relevance to our surroundings. This in turn leads to more creative thinking in all areas of life, from artistic expression to problem-solving and innovation. 

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(Side note: speaking of paying attention, here is something I have noticed in the picture above. Because of the time of day, the shadows were right in front of this gardener and you can hardly see them. Look at her feet. Does something seem wrong? No shadows! It kind of looks like I have photoshopped her in from some other picture, and failed to add in grounding shadows. I didn't, this shot is unedited, but it is driving me crazy. For people who ask me about painting tips, this is why shadows - even soft ones - can make a big difference to a scene.)

After my mindfulness walk with Scout this morning, I decided I would write about it, so I kept my iPhone out to take some pictures of things I noticed, too, during my solitary walk to pick up the mail and get my morning coffee. At one point, I leant across a fence to photograph some beautiful, peeling paint on a brick wall (something I had walked past more than 100 times before and never properly noticed) and, as I leaned, I accidentally crushed some rosemary. The honeyed, herbaceous fragrance instantly lifted my spirits, so I picked a sprig and carried it with me the rest of the way.  

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What to do on a mindfulness walk 

The next time you take a solitary walk - or a walk with the children if they are willing - take at least some of that time to try a deliberate mindfulness practise. Here are some ideas to get you started: 

1. Bring a piece of paper and pen with you, and start recording things. List 10 things you can see, 10 things you can hear, 10 things you can smell, and 10 things you can feel. There probably won't be 10 things you want to taste, but don't let me hold you back if that's your thing! I have made a pretty worksheet for this exercise that you can download here if you'd like it. 

2. Take a camera and go for a walk to see what you can see. I have been recommending this as a tool for overcoming creative block for years. There is something about the combination of exercise, a change of scenery, and exercising creativity in a different kind of way that can often be just the break your brain needs to unblock whatever was stopping you in your project. Walking with a camera can also be a beautiful way to practise mindfulness, because you are more likely to notice things. Really pay attention, and make the effort to capture what you see. Think about light and shadows and details. Crouch down to get a different perspective. Zoom in closer for some detail. Look for unexpected shapes in building angles and white space. 

3. Make a mini-movie by recording one-second videos every minute or so on your walk. Then when you get home, edit them together. You will be amazed, once you start recording, the sounds and sights you hadn't noticed until that moment. Possibly when you watch your edited movie back, you will also realise there were other things going on at the time (a woman pushing a pram on the other side of the road while you were filming a letter-box; a bus starting up from around the corner while you were filming a bird singing) and that will help you be even more mindful the next time you go walking. 

4. Just before you go for your walk, use your phone (or any other device) to make an audio recording of your walk. You don't need to do anything with this recording - you can even delete it as soon as you're done - but the very fact that you are recording will heighten your awareness of the sounds around you, and help you to pay attention. The bang of the front door as you pull it shut (even the click of the lock), a magpie warbling, the squeal of car tyres somewhere in the distance, bees on a bush, a baby crying, snippets of conversations. 

I would love to know if you find these ideas helpful, or if there is anything similar that you do in your own life, that others could benefit from knowing. What do you think?