The great out there

Sometimes looking outwards really is the only way to find some space within, says Tanya Meeson

Woman&Home SA, November 2021

It is early morning, and I am sitting on the polished wooden floors of a hip, inner-city yoga studio. I am sitting cross-legged and straight-backed, eyes closed, hands resting on knees, breathing deeply. I am becoming a tortoise. I am being told that the tortoise is a symbol of drawing consciousness inward, pulling the five senses away from the worldly out there, into the sacred stillness within. I am being told this is the way to present-mindedness, to mindfulness.

It’s the early 2000s and I’m seeking inner peace. I am sure I am close to nirvana.

Suddenly, the dulcet tones of a couple yelling colourful obscenities at each other from the street outside: He is imploring her to kindly leave; she is appealing to his mother’s physiology to express her dissatisfaction. They are not happy and I am no longer a tortoise, because all I want to do is skip to the pretty sash window and watch the drama unfold, like Tannie Stienie in Agter Elke Man watching Bruce and Leana, that kwaai lady with the very thin eyebrows, go at each other.

I leave the yoga class contemplating my lack of tortoisement and wonder whether I might one day, like the enlightened monks, be able to meditate myself so fully into the present moment that the world could explode into chaos around me, and I’d simply focus on the tip of my nose and smile the smile of the spiritually elevated.

Time is a great teacher, but years later I’m still no closer to a skilled or regular meditation practice. On the upside, I’ve come to see that mindfulness is a journey of many paths and that mine is not the way of withdrawal. For I am not a tortoise. I adore my senses. I don’t want to retract them from the sights and sounds of this world I like so much. They tickle and delight me; they’ve become a gateway to meaning in my life.

In Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman writes that the ‘senses don’t just make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity, they tear reality apart into vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern’.

Our eyes take in the ocean and see the universe reflected; our ears hear the call of a child and we feel the urgency of time. A passing scent unlocks a memory or sets a new one; the icy wind on the face charts the boundary of where the body ends and the outside begins. There is validation of our beingness in these points of contact with the external elements that confirms us as part of the whole when we’re locked in isolation in our minds.

It’s possibly why the ‘five senses’ anxiety management technique works so well. Naming five things you see, five you hear, smell and so on – while in a middle of an episode – anchors conscious attention on the external, and safely detaches you from the sticky grip of overthinking, that internal, reactionary Godzilla that enjoys thrashing about in a tangle of feelings.

I have a technique of my own I like to use every now and then.

At night, I’ll lift my gaze to the sky, cup my hands around my eyes to block out the neighbourhood light, and shift my perception ever so slightly: I am not looking up at the faraway flat backdrop of stars from my tiny garden. Rather, I am standing on the surface of a planet in the spiral of the Milky Way, surrounded by millions of neighbouring celestial bodies. The sky is no longer a static dome, but an expanding three-dimensional space where bright stars are near and the small pinpricks of light a distant reach to other galaxies.

I could be on the moon. It could 3 000 years ago. It could be 300 in the future. Just for a moment, I am timeless and my consciousness free of all the small Bruce and Leana dramas.

It’s my eyeballs that have brought me to this place of utter stillness and awe. And it’s thrilling.

It might mean that I’ll never be a tortoise, but that’s okay by me.

This column was first published in Woman&Home SA.