It started when I was a teenager in the seminary. Stressed by scholastic rigors, often homesick, questioning my commitment, I found an outlet in running. The half hour route on trails though the woods surrounding our countryside location outside St. Louis became a daily habit. I always ran at twilight and I always ran alone. I loved the sense of freedom flying down the trails. After I finished, I sat. Happy and dripping sweat, my back to the gym wall, facing northwest, looking to my right I had a view across the soccer field to the handball courts and the woods that lay beyond. I watched a long tapering shadow inch across the soccer field like a giant clock hand. Over my right shoulder stood a hundred foot bell tower that I had been told at freshman orientation was ‘Semi-Oriental Architecture.’
I sat. I prayed. I absorbed twilight. I gave up my sweat until the chill of night made me get up. The woods, russet in the fall, green as Ireland in spring, formed an arc across my field of vision from far left to center. Later I would call this meditation, but, at that Missouri seminary, clinging to my childhood perspective, it was prayer. Now I just call it ‘sitting’.
My propensity for sitting in a singularly wonderful spot, a special, familiar and perfectly comfortable place outlived my running. I kept running through my teens, college, and into my middle years. I ran the cornfield lined backroads of Indiana and Wisconsin, the beaches and the Pali of O’ahu and finally the bridges and trails of Northern California. Everywhere I ran, I found the perfect place to sit afterward. After four decades of running my knees conceded, forcing me into the gym for workouts. A small redwood grove a block from my gym is the perfect place to sit. Sitting, being entirely still after an abandoned rush of physical movement, became the greater point, the fulfillment that awaited.
Sitting? We all know how to sit, right? And many of us sit way too much. But, I’m not talking about sitting at your computer, sitting in front of a TV, sitting down to eat or sitting in your car or at a bar. The ‘sitting’ I’m referring to is a purposeful move to be comfortable, still and alone without distraction – that is without tech devices and with no purpose other than calm, comfortable observation — in a place chosen because of how good or right it feels.
The purposeful choice of time and place is crucial. It must be a place that you can call your own, simply by your brief, appreciative occupation of it. And, although, I’ve found hundreds of wonderful places to sit after a run or a workout or while traveling, hiking, exploring a city, having a regular place to sit on a consistent basis, daily or weekly, and at the same time of day has been even more enlightening.
My favorite spots are outside, under a favorite tree in a quiet park, in the dunes at the Pacific coastline. Yours might be indoors, somewhere high up, in a building a tree house, or up in the mountains or in a secluded valley or your backyard. Or perhaps you sit best on a surfboard a quarter mile out from shore, looking at nothing but water and sky, letting the wind, spray and incoming waves hypnotize you. Wherever it is you know it’s right when you’re there. Only you can find that place.
I am by far not the first person to suggest the power of sitting still. In Saul Bellow’s classic novel, The Adventures of Augie March, Augie’s wheelchair bound mentor, Einhorn, lectures him: “Sitting tight is power. The king sits on his prat, and the common folks on their feet. You know that famous painting of the gypsy Arab traveler sleeping with his mandolin and the lion gazing on him? That doesn’t mean the lion respects his repose. No, it means the Arab’s immobility controls the lion. This is magic. Passivity plus power.”
But, while Bellows applauds passivity, his gypsy is asleep. So what about combining the power of passivity with the power of observation? Consider a writer’s power of observation.
“The stars up close to the moon were pale; they got brighter and braver the farther they got out of the circle of light ruled by the giant moon.” Before Ken Kesey’s words flowed through the pages of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest he observed. While he wrote he re-imagined what his eyes had so carefully catalogued in his mind. Susan Sontag said, “A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world.”
Sitting, quietly and purposely, can be the means of letting the power of passivity augment your senses, helping you pay attention like a writer missing not one tiny detail of the tableau in your minds-eye.
Scores of philosophers, self-help gurus and theologists have preached this idea of quiet observation. My favorite, who was perhaps all three, is Carlos Castaneda.
A PhD anthropologist from UCLA, he developed a worldwide cult following after publishing a series of books called The Lessons of Don Juan. He reported on his apprenticeship with a Yaqui-native ‘Man of Knowledge’ – a 20th Century shaman who lived in northern Mexico. Referring to himself as a sorcerer, Don Juan pushed Castaneda into finding the center of his personal power and the purpose of his being. At the behest of don Juan Matus, Castaneda devoted days, weeks, even months of his life to just sitting. On a desert chaparral, on a rocky Ixtlan mountain in southern Mexico, occasionally even in a Mexico City park, not unlike the ones I enjoy in San Francisco. Years into their lessons, Castaneda wrote that Don Juan once came to him with a profound warning: “I would fall seriously if I did not go to my ‘place of predilection’ to be cleansed and restored” After a long journey to get there he reports, “In a matter of minutes I began to feel an exquisite warmth and a sense of supreme well-being. It was a sense of physical comfort, a sensation of being suspended in mid-air.”
I’m not suggesting that everyone rush out to find a power spot, eat peyote buttons and look for the crack between the everyday world of man and the mystical world that surrounds us. But, in the lexicon of Castaneda, sitting and ‘not doing’ can not only lead to self-discovery, or personal power, but can help open the world to you.
The world outside one’s self beckons – quietly. More and more our view of the world is through our big plasma screens or tiny touch screens. We may feel empowered with our tech capabilities but it’s robbing us of a more direct connection to the world.
Just the other day I walked down to Ocean Beach. Nestled into one of my favorite spots in the dunes, my head still crowded with an afternoon of e-mails and the internet, a full ten minutes passed before the roar of the ocean finally pounded its way into my senses. I looked right toward the Marin Headlands. I looked left to the Ft. Funston cliffs. I looked out across the waves focusing on the sharp line of the horizon separating sea and sky. Suddenly I realized that I was literally sitting on the western edge of the North American continent. In my mind’s eye I was an insignificant detail in the very significant boundary of a country and a continent. But, the significance of knowing that, of feeling it in my senses, as real as the beach grass tickling my arms, expanded in me, letting me feel part of planet Earth.
The sense of well-being and empowerment are not the only benefits to recommend sitting still. The observations I make while sitting connect me, in mind and spirit, with all the humans before me who have sat and wondered and enjoyed one insight after another. They discovered and taught new world views, based almost entirely on personal observation:
- Thinkers like Thales in 600 BC, Anaximander 500 BC, Hipparchus of Nicaea, 150 BC, and dozens of ancients all the way up through Ptolemy in the 1st Century AD watched the night sky and kept meticulous records of their observations. They created star charts.
- Thales predicted a solar eclipse, correctly noting the date and the time of day. He had spent years watching the arcs of the sun and moon.
- Anaximander described a cylindrical earth suspended in the center of the cosmos.
- Ptolemy sat in Alexandria observing the curvature of the earth. He expanded on what he saw and created the first know global map.
- Hipparchus formulated an accurate mathematical model of Earth’s tilted rotational axis seventeen centuries before the invention of the telescope.
- In 79 AD, Pliny the Elder observed a nova and, by his experience observing the night sky, he knew precisely what it was.
- In the 3rd century BC Aristarchus of Samos, by observation alone, proposed the alternate cosmology of a heliocentric solar system, placing the sun, not the earth, at its center.
Like the astronomers and sea captains that followed them who utilized telescopes and charts, they all had their tools. But the key to their insight was observation. No doubt they would have been amazed by the technological achievements of modern humans, but I think they would have also been amazed at our personal disconnect with the real world and would have been appalled at our under-use, or lack-of-use, of our unique powers of observation.
I have not observed as well as the ancient Greeks, nor have I gained the insight of Copernicus or Galileo or navigated the Atlantic with nothing but a sextant and a timepiece to interpret the sky. But, I have charted a simple analemma. The ancient Greeks developed it as a means of showing Earth’s axial tilt and orbital eccentricity.
This is not my analemma. It is a timelapsed photo of the sun over the ruins of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, Greece, shot at the same time every day during one calendar year. My crude Analemma chart is a rough sketch of my western view from a single spot in Cole Valley, San Francisco. I sit at the base of the third Sequoia from the south edge of the tiny park that surrounds the west portal of the N Judah MUNI line where each day at 5 PM I note the position of the sun. After a year I too had a tilted figure ‘8’.
Like the shrines of Japan’s ancient Shinto religion, which helps believers find the sacred ‘essence of the gods’ in nature, my analemma led me to more than a feel for earth’s eccentric orbit.
While I sit waiting to make my 5 PM mark, I watch the afternoon shade advance toward me. The shadows, from a trio of Sequoia’s across the park, don’t travel a straight west-to-east line, but follow a path this is mirror-opposite of the sun’s path. They extend toward me like a like a slow motion finger, elongating as they finally point directly at me.
Sitting calmly at the base of my tree I have seen the wind rapidly change everything around me. One moment I see that the tops of the half-mile distant Cypress trees bend in the late afternoon winds coming off the Pacific. The next moment, the treetops straighten and I feel a cool quiet descend into my grove. I move my eyes to ground level and see only the slightest ripple of the short grass and tiny dandelion blossoms, a subtle dance seen only by me and a party of Gnatcatchers who fly down to take advantage of the calm. They hop about and make deadly strikes at the still lawn with short fierce beaks.
Renaissance empiricists like John Locke or the father of analytical geometry, René Decartes, would ask me to augment my senses by applying scientific analysis. Charles Darwin would point out the adaptive nature of the Gnatcathcers and the urban evolution of the diminutive dandelions. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek would hand me his microscope so I could witness organisms beyond the capacity of my eyesight. Who am I to argue with geniuses? But, I would remind them that all of their insights in science and math began with keen, quiet observation. The geometry named after Descartes, the Cartesian plane, began with him observing the path of a fly on the ceiling. Darwin’s early insights were credited to his close observation of the unique life on the islands of Galapagos.
Whether the benefits of sitting and observing are personal, self-discovery or healing, or they’re the beginning of insights that provide new tools and knowledge for the entire world, is up to you. It takes time. You might miss a text, a tweet or a breaking news story but you might miss far more by not finding a quiet place to fully engage your senses.
Since life is short, slow down now and then, and give it a good look. Henry David Thoreau who spent years alone observing Walden Pond wrote: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
As I sit, listening and looking, leaning back against my favorite Sequoia, facing west I’m traveling backward at 1,037 miles per hour. I can see the effect of earth spinning on a seemingly cockeyed axis. We have a million times more information than the ancient Greeks, personal access to the world’s vast stores of knowledge, the computers to simplify the math, and we largely take it for granted. To absorb any of it we have to sit still. And we have to sit alone without tech distractions.
I am neither Galileo nor a Yaqui sorcerer, but like them, by sitting still, I can feel earth spin beneath me and witness the path of celestial bodies.
Credits: The Adventures of Augie March, copyright by Saul Below 1949. The Teachings of Don Juan, copyright 1968 by the University of California.