Movement, Balance & The Art of Being Still

5 12 2012

Silas House, in his essay The Art of Being Still, expresses beautifully the delicate equilibrium between movement and stillness.

Writing is a very active pursuit: there is the fluid flow of words, the vivid visualisations, and perhaps some brain rattling to squeeze out those ideas onto the written page.

Mr. House points out one jarring problem, however: “too many writers today are afraid to be still”.

Like me, Mr. House is constantly in motion. But he also knows there can be movement in stillness: “We writers must learn how to become still in our heads, to achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened.”

We must ingest and digest simultaneously, as Eddie from the movie Limitless put it, and as I explained here.

Most tellingly, the Chinese word for movement is 動靜 – dong jing. Dong means movement, jing means stasis and quiet. Put together you have a beautiful word that perfectly exemplifies the equilibrium between the two. Movement and stillness are not polarities – they are in fact forever in balance.

Mr. House gives his essay a roaring finale with these fine words:

I give it to you now and hope that you will take it out into the waiting world, pushing forth through all of your daily work and joys and struggles with a bit of your mind focused on reality and the larger part of it quiet, still, and always thinking like a writer.

Yes, move. But stay still, too. And hang on tight – it’s going to be a hell of a ride!


Outwardly walking, inwardly sprinting

1 07 2011

On my flight to Amsterdam, I picked up  Ian McEwan’s novel Amsterdam in which he describes one character as “outwardly walking, inwardly sprinting”. I thought, that sounds a whole lot like me!

There are two forms of movement referred to in the quote: walking (slow, calm) and sprinting (rapid, hurried). There’s an allusion to a hurriedness that’s intrinsic to one’s behaviour (sprinting), masked at the same time by an illusion of calmness (walking).

In certain ways the quotation really fits me quite well. I’m mostly calm and composed, but also always wanting to do more, see more, move more. There’s not a lot of walking and waltzing in me. It’s more of a brisk walk, often speeding up into a sprint – sprinting for everything.

Spending a few days in Amsterdam and visiting museums made me think a little more about this whole ‘movement’ thing.

What do we really get from museum visits?
I’d like to think that there is movement involved: an intellectual kind of movement, a kind of unconscious soaking up of knowledge which may (or may not) come in handy later on. Also, a kind of spiritual movement (in art museums anyway) – looking at the artists’ creative process, trying to understand what they wanted to express, putting myself in the artists’ shoes and attempting to look at the paintings from their viewpoint.

There’s also movement in that we’re allowed a glimpse of how the concept of beauty has moved and evolved over time. I think the

Still life by Adriaen van Utrecht

Dutch masters of still life are great for this. Nowadays a lot of us have taken to taking photos of our food and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr. whatever. We do this beacause the food is what we look at, and also what we want others to look at. It’s important enough to us to be worth of a picture shared to the world. Perhaps we find, unconsciously, some intrinsic beauty in our food which compels us to record it.

Photo posted on Twitter by @dotsmy

To a large extent, I think the Dutch still life masters did the same thing. Intricate paintings of potatoes, wine glasses, flowers, fruits…meticulous attention paid to light and shadows: these were what the Dutch still life masters saw and painted. In this sense I find it fascinating to move back in time and look at what these Dutch masters spent their days examining closely.

OK. So there’s all this movement everywhere – but then what?
I’m not too sure what it is that I take away from each of these museum visits. It probably isn’t any kind of profound inspiration, because I don’t know enough about the paintings to relate properly. I’m not even sure if I take away any concrete form of knowledge either, because as much as I’ve been exposed to these new forms of artistic stimuli, I don’t think I’ve learnt anything – not consciously anyway.

What I do think I take away from these museum visits is a kind of slowing down. The artworks (try to) make me stop my inward sprinting, and to slow it to a run, a jog, maybe even a saunter. They make me stop, look, examine, attempt to appreciate and understand – slow down to take it all in.

So perhaps that’s what I really take from museum visits: to outwardly walk, and to inwardly reflect, ponder, and…slow down.

I dwell in Possibility…

22 06 2011

Poetry? Blehh. I don’t like it, I don’t understand it, and I’d rather stay away from it.

At least that’s what I used to think – until I met Ruth Padel.

I didn’t actually meet Ruth Padel personally. I read her two books, 52 Ways of Looking At A Poem and 60 Poems For The Journey Of Life. As I immersed myself in the books, I realised how interesting poetry could be. Poems are full of life, meaning, inspiration…and movement.

How is poetry movement? There are words dancing down and across the page. Sounds flicker and ricochet throughout. Colours weave in and out. Vivid images are projected. Each poem is a journey. We might read it linearly from beginning to end, but I don’t think the poem itself is as simple as that. Good poems are more like spirals. They twirl, twist, swivel, spin. They are interlocking journeys of thoughts, feelings, associations, images, as Ruth Padel puts it.

Where does all this winding and whirling lead to? Truth, I think: “the spiraling dance and winding stair are poetry’s road to truth”. But here’s the thing – truths can lie. Paradoxical? Not really. The poem can lie, but the lies are true to what the poet “sees, feels, imagines”. Truths in the poem can also contradict each other, but that’s the whole point.

Do you have no contradictions? Then you have no possibilities.

Czech author Vladimir Holan

That’s probably what’s most exciting about poems. They’re full of new possibilities and inspiration. Poems embody the possibilities of seeing new truths.

I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Superior–for Doors–                                 Emily Dickinson

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6 Ways to Make Sure I’m Always Learning

11 06 2011

I love learning. More precisely, I love the feeling of movement that comes with learning. It’s a tantalising sensation of moving forwards, keeping up with the changing world around me. At the same time, though, there’s also a complementary feeling of stillness. It’s a priceless sensation.

To make sure I’m constantly learning, constantly moving in the intellectual sense, I use the following methods:

  • Twitter and RSS feeds: I’m always looking for interesting people with interesting things to say on Twitter. 
  • iPhone Apps: For reading the news, I primarily use the New York Times and BBC World News application. The Economist app is also great because it comes with downloadable audio recordings. ReadItLater and Instapaper are also great for storing articles for offline reading, so that I’m always learning, even while on the go.
  • Podcasts and iTunes U: These are great for those moments when you don’t quite feel like reading, but don’t want to stare blankly into space either. When I’m really on the go, I switch seamlessly between reading (say, while on the train) and listening to my podcasts/lectures when reading isn’t so feasible (like walking to the next train platform).
  • Reading: I try to have a book with me whenever I can and fill all my ‘gap times’ in the day by reading. Scott H Young has a good post here on how to read more books in a year.
  • Writing: I like to keep a small notebook, not for mundane recounts of what I had for breakfast but rather for all my thoughts and reflections. Writing makes me reflect and enjoy the stillness.
  • Not learning: Yep. Sometimes just staring into space, or as I do multiple times a day, going into ‘the zone’ while running/swimming/biking. At these moments my mind will be completely blank and relishing the calmness, getting ready for more learning!

So there you have it – my ways of constantly learning and educating myself.

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Movement and Stillness: a balance

10 06 2011

Are movement and stillness mutually exclusive, or are they compatible with one another?

A delicate balance between movement and stillness seems to pervade in Chinese culture. There are quite a few sayings and idioms in Chinese that place the words movement (動, dòng) and stillness (静, jìng) together. In fact, the word for movement in Chinese is 動静 – if you break down the phrase and take each character at face value, then movement is quite literally “movement-stillness”. Does this imply that the Chinese perception of movement inherently also includes stillness as a counter balance?

I came across a quotation from the  Tao Te Ching (a classic Chinese text by the sage Laozi) earlier this morning:

”  躁勝寒,靜勝熱, 清靜為天下正。”

Translation: Movement overcomes cold. Stillness overcomes heat. Peace and quiet govern the world.

So what’s Laozi getting to here? He’s highlighting the importance of balance: movement raises the temperature, and stillness decreases it. To reach an equilibrium, then, there needs to be movement and stillness until the ‘temperature’, so to speak, is just right.

Looks like the chicken needs a good dose of Tao De Ching!

Here’s another quotation:


Translation: This idiom alludes to an army. Before the army makes a move, it is as quiet as a young lady who is yet to be married (presumably a virgin). Once the army does move, it will be as quick and nimble as a rabbit escaping from its predator.

The idiom doesn’t explicitly talk about balance, but I find it interesting that both “stillness” and “movement” are used together.

So what of this balance? I agree that there needs to be a balance – after all, it isn’t exactly realistic to expect someone to keep moving perpetually, or to keep still forever. And yet the world itself is continually moving, developing and changing – so how are we supposed to find ‘stillness’?  For me, I find stillness in movement. But more on this next time.

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