Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Paying Attention to Light

I advise my writing students to begin by observing: Look closely at someone or something and describe it. Sounds easier than it is.  Paying attention is rarely simple, but it's essential if we are to be in the here and now.

I've been paying attention to the light that, even on hot summer afternoons, floods the room where I work.  Thanks to shady trees and a southerly exposure, the light is diffused, its glare softened. I enjoy looking at it as it pours through the window over my desk, cooling the room. 

Or so it seems.  I have never, until now, put it into words. Light is, after all, a silent presence, and that's the whole point: an encounter with silence and stillness.

I ask myself, Why do I enjoy looking at light?  Maybe the answer has to do with memories, half remembered, of afternoons elsewhere, in hotel rooms when we were on vacation and after a busy morning, a brief siesta was called for. Or maybe it reminds me of certain paintings, especially Vermeer's, where a lady quietly reads by a window in a room filled with natural light.  Thanks to Vermeer, the light is as important as the lady or the room.

I am drawn to light. I can identify with medieval folk in Gothic cathedrals as they felt the power of colored light from the stained glass windows, suggesting a divine presence, as if the barrier between earth and heaven, matter and spirit, had been bridged and they felt, in that lofty space, a bit of eternity.

I think about light because I know the value of contemplation and find too little time for it. Richard Rohr recently wrote that most of our thinking is unstable, a series of self-centered reactions and preferences, of judging and labeling things or worrying, none of which has anything to do with being fully in the present moment.

I need time alone each day--even just ten minutes--so that I can calmly watch everything as it comes and goes, even something as fundamental as light. I need a place in the day when my mind can be still and let things float by, without analysis or judgment or feeling.

Silence and emptiness, when we make room for them in our busy lives, are open to infinite horizons and transcendence in a way that nothing else is, Rohr says.

Time spent gazing out the window, looking at the light, may seem to some busy people time wasted, but it is the overactive, busy mind that is wasting an essential opportunity for something essential to every day: the freedom of contemplation.

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