I was passing, and then I stopped. There’s something special I notice about the scene. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is that captivates me – the architecture, the light, the viewpoint, but it does. I have this experience every day with a telephone pole as I walk through the town of Aberystwyth. Now this in itself might sound ridiculous and you may find yourself asking how can I possibly find beauty in something so…pedestrian? Truth is, I’m not entirely sure. Each experience I have with the telephone pole is completely unique. The light is always a little bit different, I’m a little bit different. But alas, every day in my walk to the library I still stop for a moment.
It’s often remarked by family and friends that I’m extremely observant. I notice colours in reflections, strange textures in tiles and make shapes in my mind with woodgrain. I don’t observe everything, but I’m aware that certain things that most would consider unimportant captivate me and wholly capture my attention becoming the most important thing in the world for a fleeting moment.
It’s taken me years of this kind of seeing to bring it to full awareness and begin to realise what it means. I was always under the impression that it was my creative temperament that led to this appreciation of ordinary things, but the more I learn, this seeing is not exclusive to the ‘creatives’ amongst us. Everyone without limit can find beauty in the banal.
Christophe Andre in his book Mindfulness: 25 Ways To Live In The Moment Through Art uses Gas by Edward Hopper to illustrate this idea of seeing ordinary things. Hopper was renowned for his oil paintings of American Life that were all simplistic in composition. Somewhat reluctant to discuss himself and his art, he famously summed up his Art by stating “The whole answer is there on the canvas.” This feels like an apt statement when weighted with the appreciation for the ordinary.
Gas, Edward Hopper (1882-1967) 1940, oil on canvas, 66.7 x 102.2m, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Andre suggests that when you begin to look, and really look you become aware of the silly detail of the Pegasus on the sign. Then you see his three little brothers on the pumps which anchors your attention. You start to assume what could be happening inside the lighted house. Is there music playing? Where does the darkened road lead to? How long will it be before the man pictured sees anyone else? For Hopper to paint this, it must have captivated him. This moment is completely unique. You stopped because you will never again see what you are seeing now. In the same way that you will never experience exactly what you are experiencing now. This is the point – you understand. This becomes the most important thing in the world – this seeing, this experience, this awareness… and this is living! You are living life.
All too often we find ourselves going through the motions in life. A work/rest alternate. We absent-mindedly wander through our days, only to get up the next morning to do the same. We’re programmed on repeat – ‘active but absent.’ Our lives are directed with signposts ‘Look now!, listen now!, taste now!, feel now!’ to ‘carefully delineated moments where we ‘have to’ be enchanted or moved (cinema, theatre, museums and galleries).’ If we allow ourselves to be victims of this signposted and dictated awareness we become robot-like. This is why moments in appreciating the ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ are so vital to enriching our soul. We must appreciate and respect normal things. I agree that is much easier to become aware and mindful in a beautiful landscape but it is true to say that it can happen anywhere and at any time – with a little effort to ‘remain awake and present.’
How do we do this in our daily lives?
I went to grab a coffee yesterday in a busy coffee shop. While I waited for mine to be made, I watched the barista work efficiently calling out different orders for collection. After a few minutes she exclaimed “banana latte and a watermelon chocolate!” A woman came and lifted the tray with a quick thank-you but didn’t pull the barista up on her comical drinks. She looked at me and grinned “I have a theory that if you shout anything, people will come and take whatever is ready. Last week it was items of clothing, this week it’s fruit.” I laughed, but after I left with my non-fruit flavoured coffee it really made me think. People hear but how often do they listen? We’re always in the doing mode, but we’re not often in the being mode. Take the painting, how often has people just filled up the tank, paid, left, not experiencing the sights to be seen? It’s important to practice listening to sounds around you, observing the light, smelling around you, tasting, touching – awakening your senses if you like. Looking with the eyes of the new-born, as if everything is new. You’ll be amazed at how much there is to see and sense. This isn’t robot-like, but it is human being-like. ‘We must be aware that we are alive. Living in awareness, touched by ordinary things, jostled by normality. It means being enlightened by the benign and ordinary- dazzled and delighted by life.’
‘Never forget that every mind is shaped by the most ordinary experiences.’ – Paul Valery, Mauvaises Pensees Et Autres
Mindfulness: 25 Ways To Live In The Moment Through Art, Christophe Andre, L’Iconoclaste, Paris, 2011 (p.112-121)