Messages of Hope

Distractions – and the inner life

Published / by Sandy

An article by Charlotte Wood, published in The Age, April 24, 2020

The garden is in disrepair. In fact it seems to me, peering through the glass kitchen doors on this third Saturday morning of the lockdown, that our pocket courtyard garden has never been in such urgent need of restoration. The sight of it fills me with gloom. Plants overburdened with woody growth sag into displeasing shapes, oppressing the more delicate, undernourished plants beneath. The leaves of others are shrivelled with disease and there’s a puddle of mucky sludge in the bird bath. Junk clutters the pavers: tangles of hose, the wheelie bin with its lid flung back, a pair of running shoes tossed out, soles up, for the sunshine to disinfect.

I have a powerful feeling that this disarray isn’t just cosmetic, but symptomatic of some deeper malaise. The sense of spacious, considered serenity – the reason to have a garden in the first place – has died, along with half the plants. There’s no order, no cohesion, no beauty. I pull on my work boots, take up the secateurs, the gloves and spade.

Of course, it’s not just the garden that’s in desperate need of repair; it’s me. Or my spirit. What might be called my inner life is, like the space before me, half dead, fragmented, mouldy in some parts, dried out in others. Unbalanced, undernourished, filled with dispiriting mess.

What is an ‘‘inner life’’, though, really? Is it the same place we’re supposed to find our ‘‘inner resources’’? Does everybody have one? Does it matter if we don’t? I think about these things through the day as I work in the garden, ripping out dead stuff, forking compost through the powdery old soil.

What I do know is that for artists and writers, the inner life is inseparable from our creative work. My writing mind is a kind of home I can return to, apart from and beyond the limits of my physical world. And as the latter has shrunk and grown a lot more frightening, escape to the former seems more essential than ever.

I wonder if artists have easier access than most to the interior, at a time like this? We habitually spend a lot of time there, after all. When we have a work in progress on the page or the canvas or the piano, we’re carrying on two lives at once – one in the physical world, another in the imagination. Quite often the inner world has a largeness, an excitement and sense of possibility the outer world lacks. Right now that difference is a stark one.

The mind is a place of great freedom, a place that with effort can be made – like a garden – peaceful yet full of movement, wild but safe at the same time.

But of course it’s not only artists who live rich inner lives. If you attend thoughtfully to your personal domain – your interests and surroundings, the people you love, your work – you will quite naturally have a substantial interior world. And while your inner life and mine might be very different, I’d posit that when they’re at their best, they might share some common elements.

First, perhaps, is a purposeful attentiveness to the concept of the mind itself as something of value, to be cared for and exercised, fed and challenged. The mind is a place of great freedom, not to be damaged or filled with rubbish; a place that with effort can be made – like a garden – peaceful yet full of movement, wild but safe at the same time.

I think the inner life needs structure and clarity, as well as moments of unruliness, to truly flourish. A beautiful garden takes planning, good boundaries, patience. It needs protection from invasive destroyers and, at the same time, acceptance of constant change. It knows that beauty takes time to develop, that some cherished elements will die while other gifts appear as ‘‘volunteers’’, those self-seeded surprises that just arrive and put down roots. A magnificent garden, though, like any work of art, is bolder – it takes risks, is prepared to sacrifice, to fail and begin again. It’s visionary, introducing new ideas, making unlikely connections. When I’m immersed in my writing mind, time expands and everything else drops away – the neediness and strain, fear, the depletion and fragmentation that pervade so much of contemporary life.

The trouble is that ordinary contemporary existence seems purposely designed to kill every aspect of the inner life. Modern capitalism depends on relentless productivity and expansion, twinned with its opposite: unceasing, completely passive consumption.

When I consider the possibility of stopping all this – of simply going still – I’m drenched in relief.

Even now, as we seem to be suddenly valuing ‘‘things that matter’’ more than ever – meditation and books and cooking and yoga and music and art – for lots of us, it’s really just a posher form of indiscriminate consumption. In our anxiety we shovel the stuff in, grabbing and discarding, mindlessly cramming one ‘‘meaningful thing’’ then another into every available space in ourselves and our days, in the same rampantly acquisitive way we’ve always done. At least, I know I have. Lately I’ve watched myself seizing up books and songs and yoga tutorials and recipes, gorging on them, then forcing them on others, pointing and urging, scarfing down all the ‘‘mindfulness’’ I can before marching on, voracious as a locust. What I’ve been doing might look like reading or meditating or cooking or ‘‘connecting’’, but much of it has been the manifestation of sheer panic.

When I consider the possibility of stopping all this – of simply going still – I’m drenched in relief.

Productivity and consumption demand constant movement, constant noise. It’s why, when first learning to meditate, we’re sent into a state of terror. For most of us, stillness gives rise to dread. Yet, at those times my imaginative world has been most alive, I’ve learned something that feels important – that stillness is not a void, it’s a well. If I let it, it will fill itself. I can return to it again and again, and it will offer me something to draw upon in moments of crisis. I think this paradoxical fear and need of ‘‘emptiness’’ is why artists have always been such enthusiastic walkers. It’s a useful trick: silent walking allows the mind to empty without the paralysing fear of stillness. A letting-go takes place. An easy, featherweight attention must be paid to the material world of the kerb, the footpath, the pedestrian crossing, which then allows the ethereal, invented world to expand inside the mind. This imaginative growth – without hope, without fear, without despair – is the precious fruit of the inner life.

Of course there are other threats to a flourishing mental state – such as distraction and fear, those eternal enemies of art-making. One of my favourite teaching tools is a study I came across some time ago, a meta-analysis of 25 years of research into the most creative mood state. The researchers found three main elements were common to experiences of profound creativity. These were a positive affect; a slightly elevated ‘‘activation’’ or energy level; and a ‘‘promotion focus’’, in which the creator works with intent to seek gain rather than avoid pain. No surprise, then, that severe agitation, fear, anxiety and anger were associated with the least creative state.

When I began consciously trying to alter my mood before I began a writing day, practising transforming my customary bleak, nervy fear into a state of quietly excited, curious optimism, my whole writing life changed. Even if I somehow forget these things every single day and must constantly work my way back to them (why? why do I revert, always, to fear?), it’s still this state of curious optimism that brings me riches. It’s this state that allows me to sink into silence, and the profound peace of creative attention to open up inside me. It’s this that allows time to expand.

It makes space, too, for bravery and risk. The necessity of risk is why too much time online is the greatest menace to my own inner world. I feel my courage seeping away with each anxious scroll through other people’s confident thoughts and assertions. Every emphatic opinion delivered by someone I respect reveals my own awkwardly forming ideas as incorrect, flimsy, even destructive. This is the signal to shut the garden gates and return to the work of composting and watering, at least until my growing creation reaches adolescence. Then will be time to let the light in, to shape and prune, to weed out imprudence or vanity or simple untruth. But until then, in this muddy germination phase when obscurity and unknowing are nourishment, sovereignty over the inner world must be absolute.

But enough of threats. What might be the things that feed a prosperous inner life?

Quite a lot from the outer, it turns out. For me, anyway, it’s best when there’s a level of tranquillity in my surroundings. A clean(ish) house. Fresh food in the fridge, exercise, frequent contact with nature. A lot of sleep. I’ve always loved that command attributed to Flaubert: ‘‘Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeoise, so that you may be violent and original in your work.’’ If I can maintain even a shred of bourgeois order, it helps.

Paradoxically, the one essential that should be most available right now – unfilled time – seems in shortest supply. Our current hypervigilance, our terror of the uncertainty ahead and phobia of stillness, has thrown us into a frenzy of overscheduling. I am that Italian guy in the meme, trying to cram in yet another appointment between the online yoga and pilates, the Zoom drinks and meetings, the chat rooms and podcasts and classes, the virtual festivals, the endless talking, talking, talking.

But now I’ve calmed down enough to recognise all this, I have the choice to step back, go inward. Of course this means I’m lucky. I have a safe home, no children to school nor elderly parents to worry about. I have good health and people to love. Despite all the cancellations, my own job is really no more precarious than it’s ever been. I have the resources for basic good citizenship – obeying safety rules, the various small economic and political acts incumbent upon the haves for care of the have-nots – and still some left over to devote to my inner world, my work.

Which brings me to one last precious nutrient for the life of the mind: joy.

So much of our world is in unspeakable pain right now. As individuals we have no way of easing most of it. But it feels important to say that despite all this we’re allowed, when it doesn’t hurt others, to protect and nurture that which helps each of us to live fully. We have a right to joy.

It’s sunset now. The garden’s pruned and fed and mulched, the pavers swept, new seedlings in the ground. All that’s needed from here is everything we already have: the autumn sunshine, some rain, and time to let it grow.

Charlotte Wood takes part in the Yarra Valley Writers Festival, a day of live streamed talks, conversations and performances, on May 9.