Or so Silas House argues in a recent essay, "The Art of Being Still:"
I’m not talking about the kind of stillness that involves locking yourself in a room with a laptop, while you wait for the words to come. We writers must learn how to become still in our heads, to achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened. The wonderful nonfiction writer Joyce Dyer refers to this as seeing like an animal.
When I was in Cambridge and first started working seriously on contemplative computing project, one of the first things I tried to get my head around was the idea of "calm," what it meant in human-computer interaction, what it means in contemplative traditions, and how to reconcile the two. Discovering Yvonne Rogers' response to Weiser's idea of calm computing, and reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, (buy your own copy-- it's really good) led me in the direction of thinking of calm not only as a physiological state (e.g., being relaxed) or as the absence of stressors (e.g., lying in a hammock with a piña colada), but also as something skilled and active; and that this last definition was the most useful one in my work. Contemplative computing isn't about escaping stresses or quitting your job; it's about learning to use devices in ways that produce a samurai, hunter-like calm.
This, I think, is what House and Dyer mean when they talk about "seeing like an animal." It's a form of mindfulness. It's detached, deliberate observation.
Likewise, the "stillness" that House is advocating is skilled, active, and disciplined. It's not the stillness of a rock at the bottom of a ravine. It's the stillness of a hunter watching its prey, or the stillness of a yoga pose. It's a form of stillness which requires discipline, focus, and the patience to hold itself unmoving, for a long time. House isn't the only one with this idea. As Tenzin Priyadarshi put it, stillness is a precondition to silence, which is necessary for insight and clarity.
Most writers today have jobs or families or responsibilities, and most often, all three. We don’t have time to sit in the woods for a few hours every day, staring at the leaves, pondering life’s mysteries and miracles and the ways we can articulate them for the reading masses.
We writers must become multitaskers who can be still in our heads while also driving safely to work, while waiting to be called “next” at the D.M.V., while riding the subway or doing the grocery shopping or walking the dogs or cooking supper or mowing our lawns.
The term multitasking at first struck me as ambiguous, but I think House is onto something. As I noted recently, "multitasking" involves weaving together several activities that all lead to some larger goal (though I admit I might have already lost the war to rehabilitate the term, and might have to use something else). What House is talking about, I think, is learning how to use your everyday life to feed your life as a writer: in effect, to learn how to view everything you do as contributing to the larger goal. Multitasking, not switch-tasking between writing and parenting and unloading the dishwasher. A tall order, but if you can pull it off, a great one.
(House essay stumbled upon via Matt Thomas)