Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Art of Stillness

About six weeks ago I had eye surgery for a retinal detachment. A bad fall I had in my home just two days before the operation, further detached the retina. I was terrified of losing my vision. During the retinal laser surgery two days later, the surgeon inserted a gas bubble into my eye to help hold the retina in place, a standard procedure for retinal detachments. It totally obscured my vision and from the inside it felt like I was looking out through glasses where one lens was smeared with vaseline. The procedure for the first week was to keep my chin elevated during the day so the gas bubble would float against a particular part of my retina. For the second and third weeks, I was to keep my face down for 1/2 hour every hour. That meant lying on a massage table I’d borrowed, timing the half-hour transitions with a cooking timer. While I can now keep my head up, I'm not able to drive until the bubble dissipates and walking is a challenge with my distorted depth perception. So I have mostly been confined to the house or short walks around my field.

During the recovery period, which lasts about 4-8 weeks depending on the surgery required, I intended at first to watch lots of movies. I wasn’t allowed to read or do emails or any kind of work for the first 3 weeks. The first day, I overdid it a bit and watched the entire first season of House of Cards. At the end of that day, I felt slimy and filthy, in need of a shower from all of the negativity, conniving, mistrust and backstabbing. I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my recovery time watching movies that affected me like that. I am reminded of Norman Vincent Peale, author of the Power of Positive Thinking, curing himself of lymphoma by watching movies that made him laugh. I figured that he wouldn’t have been watching House of Cards!

Like Norman Vincent Peale, I decided to immerse myself in positive thinking. I listened to TED talks, Hay House podcasts, Youtube videos by Joe Dispenza and Deepak Chopra, and audio books by Wayne Dyer among others. Time began to slow down. I watched movies in the evening on my laptop, sitting up for 1/2 hr and then putting the laptop under my massage table when I had to lie down for 1/2 hr. You get creative when you’re bored. That positive and creative use of time has been very enriching. 

I took notes on the podcasts and audiobooks I was listening to, hoping to use some of these thoughts in my workshops and in the writing of my book about becoming an artist later in life. I was filled with ideas. But I wanted to move into an even quieter space inside myself. I always have the need to produce something, to learn something, to make use of my time, even if I have to lie face down every half hour.

I decided to reread Pico Iyer’s book, The Art of Stillness and I started to slow down even more. I wanted to allow myself to be unproductive for a time. Sitting on my porch on a warm afternoon, simply staring at the field in front of my house requires a lot of slowing down. Like my paintings that became meditative and minimal over the past few years, I am also learning those qualities. Dragging out a few cushions for comfort, I sat sometimes on the tire swing we put up for my grandchildren. Simply rocking on it.

When do we allow ourselves such contemplation? When do we slow down enough to sit and daydream?

One thing I bring away from this gift of stillness, as my eye is healing, is the necessity of reinstating the Quiet Weeks I used to schedule for myself twice a year that I’ve written about in previous blog posts. I would clear a week of any other activities, stay home, turn off the computer and spend the time painting, reading or just staring out onto the field.


Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

~Mary Olive