Through the Looking Glass

Literature and legends, fables and falsehoods—novelist Anne Donovan on paying attention and finding insight though story.

“The Reader” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

When I was young I spent a lot of time at my aunties’ house, which was almost home away from home. The lower half of their kitchen window was made of bubbled glass, the kind you can’t see through. There was a flaw in the glass and I used to kneel on a chair and put my eye to the hole, pretending to be a spy. I could see only a tiny fragment of the garden: part of a bush, the top of a washing line, a sliver of blue or gray sky. The sting of cold air made my eyes water. Of course back then I had no idea what being mindful was, but to me that pinprick view, and the sharp, almost painful sensation that went with it, is the closest I can come to defining what it is to be in the present moment.

It’s a truism that being present and mindful is the natural state of a child. Anyone who has watched children absorbed in play knows how they are so caught up in the moment. What I remember most from my own childhood is putting a worm on a path to observe its slow progress and lying in my parents’ bed during the day when I was sick, watching the pattern of the wallpaper as though it were a moving image. My memory of these small things is more intense than my memory of many seemingly bigger moments in my life.

The act of reading can be like a meditation. In meditating we still the body and mind in an attempt to be mindful; the I who observes the thoughts is separate from them.

As adults we tend to lose that precious ability to be intensely in the moment, which is why the practice of mindfulness is crucial to enabling us to live more fully. Being mindful is often defined as paying attention to what is going on now rather than allowing yourself to slip into daydreams, thoughts, and plans. So when standing in a queue in the supermarket, instead of thinking of the next chore you have to do or the film you saw last night, you bring your attention to the person at the checkout and to the sounds and smells all around you. But I know that as a child, in addition to paying attention to the present, I also spent a huge amount of time daydreaming and living in a fantasy world. I was often told off for trying to read a book under the table or under the covers at night or for daydreaming when I should have been listening to something. Now, as a writer, I spend a lot of time in a fantasy world too, imagining people and scenarios other than the ones I am engaged with. Even when I am away from my computer—on a bus, perhaps—I am often imagining my characters, being them instead of being myself. So is it possible for me to reconcile being mindful while living with fantasy and fiction?

Young children often weave their way between fantasy and reality without distinguishing between them. A piece of wood picked up on a walk becomes a sword and suddenly the child is a knight. Then the wood becomes a magic wand and gives him the powers of a magician. To children, a favorite cuddly toy or doll can be as alive as any human being. I remember an interaction between a young child and woman in the street. The child was carrying a toy dog.

Woman: What’s your doggie’s name?

Child: Lucky.

Woman: That’s nice. We have a dog called Lucky, a real dog.

Child (slightly bemused): But Lucky is a real dog!

Like this child, we adults also carry our fantasies around with us. Ours, though, are locked inside our heads. They are not as visible as a toy. Our stories are powerful, shaping our views of the universe, ourselves, and other people. They can be dangerous too. How often have I worried about how someone will react to something or what someone wants from me? How often are our social interactions fundamentally empty because we are unable to approach each other with truth? Sometimes our fantasies are so negative that they poison the present. It’s understandable to worry while waiting for test results when faced with the real possibility that an illness is serious, but how often do we spend time poring over trivial symptoms on the Internet, convincing ourselves that we may have only weeks to live? How often do we waste the precious time we have?

But if fantasies can be negative, doesn’t that mean that they can have a positive effect too? Human beings love stories, so perhaps they can be used to our benefit. Perhaps they can even help us to experience greater clarity.

As a writer I regularly experience the strange paradox of being in the moment, fully aware, utterly engaged, yet dealing with people and situations that are not real. In fact there are few occasions in my life when I am more mindful than when I am writing. I find it hard to reconcile this with most of the teachings I have read or heard about mindfulness but I venture to propose that what makes it work is the consciousness of stepping into that other world, of accepting it in the way that one can mindfully accept stepping out into rain or sun without judgment. When I look up from my computer and see the trees outside my window, I know I am in two worlds, the one outside and the one inside. I step between them as I step between my own life and that of my character. I am not daydreaming in order to escape reality but to experience a different form of reality. In order to write the best book that I can, I need to allow my imagination to roam freely. But I must also work with the more conscious aspects of my mind to shape the writing and polish the language.
Writing needs to have some fundamental truth about it, if it is to be of any value. For of course it is not just the writer who steps between an outer reality and an inner one—as readers we follow the same path. The imagination is a complex and mysterious part of our consciousness. How can we understand and engage the imagination in a way that enhances our clarity and understanding, rather than being a way of tuning out reality?

Of course fiction can be trivial and dishonest too; it can sensationalize situations and manipulate our emotions. The practice of mindfulness encourages us to accept and understand, rather than to judge.

The act of reading can be like a meditation. In meditating we still the body and mind in an attempt to be mindful; the I who observes the thoughts is separate from them. In reading we take time out to enter another world; the I who is reading is at once experiencing that world and separate from it. And just as we may find greater clarity when we observe ourselves in meditation, so, by reading, the dual perspective can lead us to insights, which we can carry into our lives.

Fiction—books and films—have helped me to see things more clearly, to understand human nature more deeply, and to aspire to something better. As a writer and a reader I know that fictional characters are not real but I care about them as if they were, and I am shocked, distressed, or delighted by the events of their lives. Just as it is often easier to understand other people’s dramas more clearly than our own, fiction helps us to see how we can be blinded by our emotions. Reading about characters can free us from our prejudices, which often obscure our view of family and friends, and can let us see things from other cultural perspectives.

Of course fiction can be trivial and dishonest too; it can sensationalize situations and manipulate our emotions. The practice of mindfulness encourages us to accept and understand, rather than to judge. Yet there is a difference between being judgmental and being discriminating. Through training ourselves to be mindful and aware, we nurture our ability to sense when things are off-kilter. This involves listening to and observing our body’s reactions so we can heighten our awareness of what and how much we need to eat, but it also involves observing the effect that a book has on us. Just as too much junk food makes us feel deadened, so too does too much reading of material that does not serve to move us in the direction of greater awareness.

Of course the books that are helpful for one person are not necessarily so for another. I was an English teacher for many years, and one of my greatest joys was helping to introduce and cultivate a love of reading in children. Being able to introduce the right book at the right time to a child is a great privilege. It’s a bit like watching a plant grow and knowing the right time to give it water or move it to a sunnier or shadier spot. As adults we have to cultivate that sensibility for ourselves and, to some extent, become our own mentors. Then maybe those little pinprick moments of awareness, the chink of cold air through the glass, will come more often.