Being in the now, immersed in the moment, rooted in present time is said to be the best thing for us, because when we are in the present moment we cannot think about what has happened or what is to come; life is more immediate and almost certainly easier to navigate. I find it a difficult practice, however. My to-do list and my what-I’ve-done list can be far too dominant in my thoughts, thoughts that disconnect me from the here and now, thoughts that pull me into ruminating. Eckhart Tolle has a famous book all about it – The Power of Now – in which he says, “the greatest obstacle to experiencing the reality of your connectedness [to the now] is identification to your mind.” Tolle asserts that we let our mind run and control us, allowing our thoughts to become compulsive as opposed to being able to control them – which is much easier said than done. Tolle’s ideas about this are not new, Louis McNeice knew it instinctively; what else could the line in McNeice’s poem, ‘Prayer Before Birth’ mean? The one that reads, “my words when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me” – although McNeice, perhaps, is taking it a step further by maintaining that we are not only unconscious in our thinking, but often in our speaking. Reading that silenced me!
I’ve lately become mildly fixated by An Attempt at Exhausting A Place in Paris, by Georges Perec. It is a short book in which he details all he sees during a three-day stint sitting in a café looking out onto Place Saint-Sulpice in mid-October 1974, watching the world go by (that’s my kind of work) and obsessively noting what he observes, adding little judgement. In an introduction to the book, Perec describes his intention as observing and documenting “that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars and clouds.” Perec doesn’t put it this way, but I see his pursuit as an extreme exercise in resting in the here and the now, the ultimate training for being in the present moment. I know his book may not be to everyone’s taste (I sent it to one friend who came back with, “leaves me exhausted, item overload!”), but I love it. It is quietly mesmerising to read through the itemised log, it conveys a hypnotic sense of time travel, and invites the reader to relax into the ordinariness of a city breathing, to melt into the ever-changing moment, “Most people are using at least one hand;” he says in one entry, “they’re holding a bag, a briefcase, a shopping bag, a cane, a leash with a dog at the end, a child’s hand.” He puts the brakes on time by being present to all he sees; sights similar to those I pass every day, yet remain blind to because I am too caught up in the thoughts that run me. He focuses on how people walk, which Perec calls (I just love this) “degrees of determination or motivation”. And this is how he classifies them: “waiting, sauntering, dawdling, wandering, going, running toward, rushing (toward a free taxi, for instance), seeking, idling about, hesitating, walking with determination.” His eye keeps moving, taking in everything, constantly in the moment, never deviating to create a story about what he has seen or what it reminds him of. He keeps his mind trained only on what is before him.
Last night, I went walking in the dark, a little air before bed, and I thought of Perec and Tolle and McNeice and their various ways of being in the now. As I walked, I tried to think of nothing beyond what I saw, who I passed, the movements of the night, the almost full moon lighting the clear sky. Skinny boy on Deliveroo bike with a box backpack that he could probably fit into; people outside Joseph Pearce’s with takeaway plastic pints leaning on bins; a dog walker wearing a hat with ear flaps (temperature almost at freezing); a matt, black Mercedes with a growling exhaust; the number 25 bus (Riccarton); a banner for a key cutting service; a scooter turning down a dark alley; smells from the Thai takeaway; no smells from Star Kebab; the number 25 bus (Gyle); a young man with energetic curls carrying a skateboard under his arm; a go-slow ambulance with no siren sounding; a second Deliveroo cyclist; a man leaving the Greek Grill House with two bulging plastic bags; long strings of coloured lights hung from the windows of the flats above Cash Converters; diggers sleeping in the middle of the road surrounded by muddy holes (foundations for the tram); a third Deliveroo cyclist; five young boys on mountain bikes; Leith’s Christmas tree, lights twinkling at the foot of the walk; two girls carrying bottles, wearing bell-bottoms, ringing a doorbell and calling up to an open window before being buzzed in; spilled paint that someone had walked in to leave a trail of clean white boot prints that glowed on the grey pavement like a beautiful art installation; Venus glowing on a cloudless night.