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contemplation

Trains, Bicycles, and Libraries

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Trains, Bicycles, and Libraries

I just returned from a three-week trip to Chicago where I was a scholar-in-residence at Skokie Public Library. I took the Empire Builder out and back, a three-day train ride each way. I brought my bike and cycled over 500 miles getting to and from Skokie each day. In addition to getting very tan and very opinionated about Chicago's car culture and bike infrastructure, I experienced an overwhelming sense of rightness and belonging. TL;DR I am filled to the brim. 

This trip was a windfall of riches in experience. Each interaction taught me something. Skokie librarians are downright amazing people. The library itself is full of heart, every ounce of it feels activated.  Together we imagined and practiced what a contemplative culture might look like. We meet, talked, and experimented. I am still feeling out the boundaries of my gratitude. They are far and wide. 

One interaction, in particular, a conversation with a retired Chicago cop who attended a program I ran on a Saturday morning is the inspiration for this post. She taught me many things that morning, and one of them was helping me realize the power of photography to reflect on and appreciate your life. These photos give in many ways. The process of taking them allowed me to slow down and appreciate the moment I captured. The revisiting and deciding which to share allowed me to remember and appreciate the experiences again and also in new ways. Captioning and sharing them with you connects us across time and space. And in the future, I will be glad to revisit these memories and experience all the emotions they rush in. 

THE TRAIN

Montana Sky Country

Montana Sky Country

I'd never gone on a multi-day train ride before and I loved it. It's a humane way to travel, one that nurtures a culture of trust. You're trusted as you board. There's no security theater. You trust others to not take your things when they're unattended. You trust each other to care for the common spaces (bathrooms, trash cans, aisles, etc.) while you're traveling together.

The sun rising near Devil's Lake, North Dakota.

The sun rising near Devil's Lake, North Dakota.

You're trusted to be nice to each other.  During meals, you're seated with whoever came right before or after you. I met such interesting people, all of whom were very different from me. I found common ground with each of them and will remember their faces and our conversations for a long time.

The sun setting in Whitefish, Montana

The sun setting in Whitefish, Montana

It's truly amazing (and also kind of wrong) that we can travel so far so quickly on planes. A train ride gives you a sense of the distance you're traveling. The time zone changes are gentle. You experience the gorgeous and the mundane of trackside towns and forests.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

THE BICYCLE

There is probably nothing more evocative of my time on the trip than this photo.

There is probably nothing more evocative of my time on the trip than this photo.

In exchange for pet sitting a very sweet 19-year-old cat for a week, I had accommodations in Chicago, right downtown in Printer's Row, for my entire residency. This choice afforded me the opportunity to build a true friendship with the colleague that offered her home to me. I also made a couple friends in their tight-knit community. 

Pausing at one of my favorite spots along the lake shore. A bank of flowering Black-eyed Susans.

Pausing at one of my favorite spots along the lake shore. A bank of flowering Black-eyed Susans.

It also meant that I biked 20-miles one-way to and from Skokie each day. It was an interesting choice to make, but looking back on it, my time in the saddle was such a rich and alive part of the experience. I wouldn't have wanted it another way.

A perfect day, especially appreciated after a string of very wet rides.

A perfect day, especially appreciated after a string of very wet rides.

My first ride was during a thunderstorm that began at about 5:30 in the morning. It was torrential and I was soaked through after riding two solid hours in it. After that, I thought it could only get better but turns out another storm awaited the very next day. I experienced so many challenges along the lake front and the streets I found to Skokie (Ardmore, Kenmore, Granville, Lakewood, Pratt, Kedzie, McCormick, and Main). Menacing cars, impatient cyclists, oblivious rollerbladers. It was truly difficult each day in its own way. But, like my commute here at home, which is also two hours and involves 10 miles and a ferry ride, there's so much to be gained by accepting the challenges presented. It is a different experience to ride in the rain when you aren't upset that it's raining. In many ways, my ride afforded countless opportunities to practice acceptance.

THE LIBRARY

From the first minute to the very last of my time in Skokie, I felt something I rarely experience: belonging. Over the course of thirteen days, I participated in 51 engagements — "Mindful Meet-ups" with staff, departmental meetings, walk & talks with individuals, pop-up programming for the public, and more. I directly interacted with lots of folks — from over 70 Skokie staff members to nearly 20 leaders in other area libraries to ~40 members of the public.  It was a very full 13 days.

A goodbye gathering on my last day.

A goodbye gathering on my last day.

I left with more questions than I arrived with, which is just what a PhD student needs. Together we explored contemplative culture, programming, and spaces. There's so much to play with and learn about what's possible.

Drawing "internal weather reports" with Skokie patrons. (Photo by  Max Herman )

Drawing "internal weather reports" with Skokie patrons. (Photo by Max Herman)

I think more than any other question, though, the one that's most on my heart and mind at the moment is about how contemplative practice creates and sustains community.  I am sure that wherever my work is leading, it will involve understanding how we bring our whole selves to everything we do, and how our whole selves are incomplete without understanding who were are together.  

A post-it note left by a member of the public. I couldn't have said it better myself.

A post-it note left by a member of the public. I couldn't have said it better myself.

So much gratitude for this experience. So much more to come.

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Get Freer with Freewriting

This quarter I've been exploring freewriting*. I've discovered Peter Elbow and Marion Milner and Pat Belanoff. I've introduced a freewriting activity into the undergraduate design thinking course I TA-ed for, I began a research project with Morning Pages writers, and I'm noodling on an idea for a collaborative freewriting tool that would help groups through stuck or stymied moments in their creative process. I've also played with my own freewriting, experimenting with new methods and tools.

FOR EXAMPLE, I'VE BEGUN TO FREEWRITE IN THE MIDDLE OF MY COMPOSITIONS BY PUTTING ON THE CAPS LOCK AND WRITING WHATEVER'S ON MY MIND FOR A LITTLE WHILE BEFORE GOING BACK TO 'REGULAR' WRITING MODE.

This morning, while reading Belanoff's Nothing Begins With N**, I stumbled on her list (p. 27-29) of ways to make your writing more "free," which in turn may make it more original, clarifying, cathartic, and (ironically) structured. Here are a few of her exercises (paraphrased by me) that I thought were especially easy to try:

  1. Write for longer and longer periods of time and more quickly. For example, set a timer, write, and then the next time you freewrite, set the timer for the same amount of time, but write more than you did the time before. Or set a word count and time how long it takes you and try to beat it the next time. As you go along with this practice, increase the timer or word count from time to time (ha!).

  2. Get everything out of your head and onto paper (or the screen) in 3 minutes. List making is fine for this activity.

  3. Freewrite about the process of freewriting instead of freewriting about whatever you're working on or through.

  4. Freewrite only questions. Ask every question you can think of.

  5. Freewrite for five minutes, then put that writing aside and rewrite what you just freewrote. Wait five minutes. Try to rewrite your freewriting once or twice more. Afterwards, look at the writings and compare them. Did your ideas evolve? What was consistent? What was lost?

More to come from me on freewriting and especially that Morning Pages study. Still figuring out what and how to blog my academic journey and this morning's reading struck me as simple and straightforward to share. If you have thoughts about freewriting, please tweet or email them to me.


* Here's a typical prompt for freewriting from Elbow: The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don't stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can't think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write "I can't think what to say, I can't think what to say" as many times as you want; or repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The only requirement is that you never stop.

** I love the story of how this book was titled: A student who was being encouraged to freewrite said "I have nothing to say," to which the instructor replied, "Nothing begins with an N."

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Question: What is contemplation?

In an effort to share what's on my mind and also invite dialogue and collaboration* with others, I've decided to occasionally post illustrated questions to my Twitter account. 

I posted the first question "What is contemplation?" on July 20th with the following illustration:

To my delight, a new friend that I met at Sketching in Practice, Brad Ovenell-Carter, took some time to enter in dialogue with me by responding with this:

Brad asked, "Do we understand 'contemplation' better by taking it apart or by practicing it?" I suspect this is something that the people who already research mindfulness and contemplative practice grapple with all the time. I haven't even started yet and I am already torn between wanting to be rigorous and scientific and wanting to truly understand, which I recognize may end up being a personal journey. I hope both are possible. I tweeted back:

To which @braddo replied

Encouraging me to read "Meditation in a Toolshed" by C.S. Lewis, which I did and found inspiring. On his recommendation, I'd also read a post on Brainpickings about Alfred Kazin, whose journals I instantly downloaded to my iPad thanks to the wonders of having a university NetID. I tweeted back:

And found myself arriving at my next question, which I posted this morning: "What contemplative practices might inform my future research?" The twitter conversation for today's question is already unfolding to reveal new connections and ideas.

I'll be sure to chime back in with any insights I come to regarding experimenting with looking along and at my own practices and where they lead me. Feel free to pick up any of these threads and contribute your thoughts. You don't have to be as provocative or talented at drawing to be part of this discourse. 

And much gratitude to @braddo for extending my thinking here. There are fewer greater gifts. 


* I'm enabling comments on this post if you'd like to think together about this publicly. Of course, you can also email me or dm me on Twitter if you'd prefer to keep the conversation private.

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A Guide to the Personal Retreat

Recently, I led a staff retreat day for Literary Arts, a wonderful organization in Portland, OR. In preparation for the day, I created handouts for each of the activities I'd planned to do.

I snapped a photo during the Morning Pages workshop and posted it to Instagram. On a phone call later, my friend and colleague Sarah Lutman said she wished she could've been there. I mentioned that I had handouts from the day that I could send her and she was eager to receive them as she was already planning a personal retreat day and might use some of them as inspiration. In that moment the idea of converting those handouts into something any individual might use for his or her personal retreat was born.

I've since edited the handouts so that they apply to individuals and also added some instruction around planning for and filling a day of personal reflection. It is with gratitude to Literary Arts, Sarah Lutman, and each of the idea creators represented within (most especially the ones I know personally: Anton ZuikerDave Gray, and Nick Sousanis) that I present to you the first version of A Guide to the Personal Retreat. I hope and intend to update it with added suggestions and activities in the years to come.


A Guide to the Personal Retreat

This 12-page PDF guide contains advice and instruction for creating your own personal retreat. It will help you plan and structure a seven-hour day and fill it with reflective activities that I've vetted through my own personal retreat experiences.

Here's a list of the activities included in the guide, each linked directly to their original creators:


As requested in the guide, please send your questions or any stories (and images!) about your retreat to beck@becktench.com

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Mindful Email

I'm currently reading David Levy's book, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives, and doing the exercises recommended. The first exercise is called "Observing Email" and it instructs you to check email for a dedicated length of time (like 20 or 30 minutes), log observations you make, create personal guidelines from those observations, and then share what you learn, which is what I'm doing today.

Last week, I logged eight sessions across four days, which was over four hours of email time. I quite enjoyed logging my experience, especially during the first five sessions. I was less disciplined with ending my email checking in the last three sessions — I'd reach inbox zero and then keep email open instead of closing it and proceeding to another activity.

Here's a samplE of some of the observations I made:

  • Doing email feels like whack-a-mole.

  • Find myself in the middle of an urgent series of tasks: see something opportune, schedule it, inform the person of my commitment, repeat.

  • Feeling pressure to say yes to all the people that have requested my time.

  • When I dread the contents of an email, I want to postpone it/snooze it/do other things.

  • I need a notepad beside me while I check email to write down things I need to remember so I stay in email.

  • Feeling trepidation at responding to one email and therefore the recipient knowing I'm available and needing to respond to their other emails.

  • I am not at all paying attention to my body or posture.

  • Felt the desire to go to Facebook immediately after opening a message I was avoiding opening.

And here's a list of things I learned about myself:

  • I am in and out of my calendar a lot during email. It's hard to do email without it because many emails are about scheduling.

  • There are lots of things that can take me off task while in my inbox, especially newsletters and social updates that link to the internet.

  • Checking email can emotionally derail me.

  • Sometimes I dread email when the reality of my inbox is actually not dreadful.

  • I have a tendency to avoid emails that are long and complex and prefer to keep the ball in the air with shorter, more manageable email volleys.

  • Sometimes email involves using a number of different devices and websites.

  • Emails come in tides and waves. Sometimes they accumulate quickly, other times they seem to trickle in.

  • Email seems to be an emotionally "felt" experience for me, even though I have a hard time noticing my posture, breath, or physical senses.

The exercise also instructs you to read over your observations and synthesize them into guidelines. For me, this was the most helpful part.

Here are the guidelines I came up with:

  1. My email craft* requires certain tools:

    • a good calendaring app that does not require me to exit email to schedule things

    • a notepad and pen for jotting down tasks so that I can stay in email instead of following up on every task right away

    • my mobile device handy for certain information needs (sometimes optional)

    • a mouse because I enjoy using one (sometimes optional)

  2. Email can be an emotionally volatile space. I must notice my emotional state before opening my inbox and agree to the likelihood it may be altered by what I find (otherwise, I should check email at a different time).

  3. To keep distractions at bay, I need to close my email once I've achieved inbox zero and re-open it with intention.

  4. When people or newsletters email me things I'd like to explore, make a note of it instead of exploring right away. Similarly, when people request I do something, it's okay to make a note to do it and then email them to say I'll get back to them later.

  5. Treat lengthy or complex emails (or emails I must write but don't exactly know how to) as I do anything else I'd typically avoid: get them out of the way first, using a pomodoro if necessary.

 

I found this exercise not only fun, but also enlightening. I recommend it and am already considering observing social media time using the same methods.


* A note about craft: Levy argues that we should consider our digital life a craft like we consider woodworking or playing a sport. That it requires practice, certain tools, and refinement. There's an entire chapter about this coming up, so I'll likely blog more about it later, but I love the idea.

 

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Contemplative Arenas

I'm reading Thomas Merton's journals lately and telling everyone about them.

After one such telling, my friend Meredith pointed me to a novice monk that studied under Merton, James Finley. Finley wrote Merton's Palace of Nowhere, which is nowhere to be found in the libraries around me. My local library does have an audio book Finley created some years later, which isn't the same as the other even though it's titled similarly. In Thomas Merton's Path to the Palace of Nowhere Finley talks you through Merton's journals with a specific lens on how he lived a contemplative life and I've been enjoying it.

Key among my takeaways so far is a better understanding of what makes an experience contemplative. I use the phrase "contemplative practice" with increasing frequency lately and no one (including me) is exactly sure what I mean. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Understanding it from Merton's point of view is a start, so here goes. According-to-what-Finley-learned-from-Merton, contemplative experiences are spontaneous, require trust that the experience is indeed real and revelatory, and tend to occur in the following situations, or arenas:

  • When you're in nature and connecting to a stillness or natural phenomena.

  • When you're truly connecting with another human.

  • When you're completely alone.

  • When you experience art (broadly defined).

  • When you're in meditation or prayer.

  • When you're viscerally aware of your own suffering (physical or mental).

  • When you're aware of healing from whatever you were suffering from.

  • When you're reflecting philosophically about something (like writing or daydreaming).

Finley has his own words for these arenas, "Experience of Nature, Human Intimacy, Solitude, Art, Prayer, Suffering, Healing, and Philosophical Reflection." Seems like a good start. It will be interesting to see how these Christian-based observations compare to other sources.

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