I have recently returned from a trip to Australia, my second trip Down Under, teaching various clinical applications of mindfulness to mental health professionals. I love this exotic continent and, when asked, I eagerly share my impressions with, what I think, is infectious enthusiasm. But the other day I thought to myself: “How certain am I of my impressions? How confident am I that my subjective experience of this land would be in any way predictive of someone else’s impressions?” I pondered this for a while and concluded that “all attention is selective.” Now, how I got from A to Z on this point is irrelevant. What’s relevant – for the purposes of this writing – is just this last insight that “all attention is selective … and, therefore, is subjectively biased.”
You see, mindfulness can be understood as a conscious deployment of attention. That’s not all of it but that’s how a mindful moment begins – it begins with a choice of what to attend to. And that’s where subjective bias sneaks in. So, as we unpack our travel bags, the souvenirs (souvenir is French for something “memorable,” a memento) tell the story of what caught our attention. Yes, “caught.” There is, indeed, a passivity to this most of the time – something catches our attention, as though initially against our will, and then we ourselves choose to continue or not continue to deploy our attention (our will) on what initially caught it. Needless to say, the attention span of an average modern tourist seems to be limited to how long it takes to snap a picture and post it on Facebook or Instagram. We seem to be moving through unfamiliar places with almost the same speed as we move through familiar places, pausing only long enough to look at the Unfamiliar through the familiar peephole of our phone-cameras.
Shutter speed is a term from photography that has to do with how long a shutter is open. Another term for this is exposure speed. In my travels, I am progressively intrigued by how little we – travelers – linger, and by how quickly we move on to the next thing. Our minds open up for a brief moment – we let the new reality in for a split second – and then we bury our noses in editing and uploading the impressions that we have just been barely exposed to, before we even have a chance to process them. To swallow is not the same as to digest. To take a picture of a scene is not the same as to take in the experience that a given scene evokes in you. But that’s where we are at …
About a week ago I get an email from an Australian psychologist who attended one of my workshops (this one was in Sydney) and he tells me that he’s been mulling over a point I made in the presentation on mindfulness and resilience. The point itself is important but it is irrelevant to this writing. What struck me was how thoughtful his analysis was; his email contained a very well-written, well-reasoned analysis of what I had said and of his own thoughts on the matter. In sum, I was intrigued by his long-exposure, slow-shutter speed of processing, ie by the apparent aperture (openness) of his point of view. So, I asked him if he writes – he said “yes;” he added that he hadn’t bothered to publish what he writes. Even more intriguing – an authentic voice that hasn’t yet sold out. I asked him if he would mind sharing his writings with me – he didn’t object and sent me a collection of vignettes. I asked him if I could share a few of his vignettes with my blog readers. Once again – no objection from him.
So, here we are. I’d like to introduce you to Sean Kijurina, a rural Australian psychologist, who practices in New South Wales (a five hour drive from Sydney). In particular, I’d like to share with you a vignette from Sean that speaks to his shutter-speed, to how long he seems to keep his mind exposed to an experience as he digests it. But, first, here’s how Sean describes his clinical practice:
“I am required to deliver primarily a short-term psychological intervention (about 6-12 sessions). Common problems presented are mood dysregulation, anxiety and stress, interpersonal conflicts, adjustment/transition problems, chronic pain, and if I’m lucky, once every couple of months someone will come in with an existential crisis and lack of meaning in daily life, at which point my enthusiasm changes up a gear. I’ve done training and practiced applying (to different levels of success) various therapeutic approaches including CBT, ACT, DBT, IPT and so on, though I have found over time it’s usually only a few key aspects or exercises from each of those that tend to remain in my practice in the long run.”
I asked Sean to share more about his work with the Aboriginal clients and here’s what he wrote:
“To answer the question about Aboriginal clients, there’s actually a fair amount of variation. For some there is really no difference in how I approach therapy. However for some who may have a particularly strong sense of their culture – being aware of how their families and community works, being aware of the importance of passing on traditions to the new generation, being aware of their strong connection to native land, language, and also being aware (with some of the older clients) of the Stolen Generation (when kids many years ago were forcibly removed from their families by the government and tried to be integrated into new families) and the collective trauma that came with that.”
The following is a vignette by Sean that I wanted to share with you, a vignette that shows what, in photography, would parallel a long-exposure snap of reality:
There is a tree, a single solitary tree. A tree that stands resolute, and eternally patient. A tree that waits for nothing, gone beyond waiting. All manner of life comes and goes by, the tree stands there faithfully beside the highway, watching as hundreds and thousands of humans drive by, some relaxed and some restless, some in a hurry and some go easy. The tree sees all things but never speaks its wisdom, never tells its stories or interferes with its interpretations. It simply stands there silently. Every now and then one of the humans runs right into it. The tree does no bend or sway or intervene, it just stands there in stillness and silence, watching.
Over the years, nature brings flooding and the water level rises up to the lower branches. The waters slowly subside and eventually nature brings drought. The tree stands there calmly all the while, still and dry. Nature again brings flooding and onward the cycle goes. No matter what comes its way, the tree continues to simply stand still and observe all manner of life, open to everything, watching the world go by.
I admire the tree for its resolute character. It does not bend or waver, nor yield to changing tides; it endures all that comes its way. The tree never strives to be taller for a better view, nor seeks deeper roots for a greater share. It is not in a rush, and time is unimportant. It just stands there patiently watching, taking everything in, observing the natural world as it ebbs and flows. The tree stands still and silent, completely alive.
When I read this I thought of a moment I had in Kings Park in Perth, Western Australia. Kings Park is a botanical garden with breath-taking views of the Swan River – a place that is both spectacular and serene at the same time (there I go “infecting” you with my subjective impressions – perhaps, you wouldn’t like it … who knows … ). So, there in Kings Park there is a giant 750 year old baobab tree. It has an amazing story: this tree had “grown up” 3200 kilometers north of Perth and was slated for “demolition” to make way for a highway; the local people from the Gija tribe instead decided to donate this tree to Kings Park and so this ancient living fossil was trucked from Telegraph Creek near Kimberley to its new home in Perth, roots and all. It’s been almost ten years since this epic journey and this giant baob, named Gija Jumulu, is doing just fine. Swan River views aside, I wonder if it misses the views of Telegraph Creek …
So, as I stood there a few years ago, during my first teaching visit to Australia, I felt I simply couldn’t take my eyes off this silent giant, taking in what Sean would have referred to its “resolute character.” But just as I was amazed by the resilience and longevity of this tree, I was acutely aware of the fleeting shutter-speed of human attention around it. Folks with cameras on their necks or phones in their hands would walk up to the tree, their jaws would drop in a “wow,” then they’d pose, snap a selfie, and move on without much delay, minds closing at shutter speed. Oh, how hard it is for us to slow down, to take in the immensity of cosmic time. How afraid we must unconsciously be of our own fleeting mortality to get so quickly bored by such awe-inspiring sights.
In the blogs to come I plan to share more of Sean’s writings (with his gracious permission), but right now I’d like for you to ponder a line from Sean’s vignette: tree “is not in a rush, time is unimportant.” Indeed, indeed! Time is unimportant. But timelessness is.