When I was in my 20’s I entertained the thought of going to graduate school at the (famous) University of Iowa Creative Writer’s Workshop.
I sent a letter to Tom Robbins, the author of “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” and asked him what he thought of my idea. He replied: “If you are indeed serious about writing, you should stay the hell away from the University of Iowa and any other creative writing program that you or John Updike could think of.”
At the bottom, he wrote; “Pay attention to everything.”
I took his advice.
It is 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity and I’m driving a car with open windows. I have no air conditioning. I’m shopping. I rarely shop. I am breaking my rule of never going to this town that seems entirely made up of every store you’ve ever heard of.
In my sweat-soaked Subaru, I’m going shopping in Cool Springs. It is not cool. There are no springs. I’m shopping for the perfect sheets to send to my son in college; the one who doesn’t give a crap about perfect sheets.
My third eye is casting malevolent glances back at my brain like the secret police looking for scapegoats. Which member of this think tank had the brilliant idea to drive down a blazing highway to buy perfect sheets? Who cares about perfect sheets? What the hell is wrong with me! The heat inspires me to cast vague aspersions at people who do Hot Yoga. How do they survive?!
Raging hormones that aren’t even mine thanks to a Hippocratic Oath gone innocently wrong aren’t helping the situation. Aqualung is blasting on the radio. It’s the jam. I’m dancing in my seat and laughing as I make my way out of the parking lot exit to cross a three lane road to turn left because I can barely find my way out of this parking lot and I enjoy absurdity. Cars are sprinting from four directions with four turning lanes. There is no traffic light or traffic sign. It’s every man for himself. I’m purple and nasty feeling as Aqualung himself; looking like a dead duck…but I’m steady as they come in this rock and roll hot seat. Nerves prone to tremble like spider web strands when unoccupied are calm as I play Pac Man with this car. My wits are a wary game stalking creature, while my mind recalls the joy of a JethroTull feral youth and the taste of an icy pineapple coconut smoothie all at once. Being in the moment doesn’t mean single minded. Time is multi-dimensional. It’s all happening now. You have to be able to pay attention to the task at hand while your mind recognizes at thousand things at once.
As I hit the gas to shoot through a closing hole in the stream of cars I’m startled by a large and oddly tall truck coming toward me bearing radiant 3D electronic billboards which are sliding up and down like shuffled cards, changing pictures second by second, advertising cars and electronics and other stuff that they must sell here in store city. It says movingenius.com on the edges. Are you kidding me! What dark mind thought of this! This should be illegal. Frankly, this whole town should be illegal. The abomination on wheels is designed to part you from your money or kill someone. I’m distracted but calm and alert; I don’t skip a beat. I’m delighted by the insanity. I enjoy railing against irrationality.
Pay attention to everything had been my mantra since I was a nitpicking double Virgo infant anyway and I took Tom’s advice to stay out of school. I remembered his letter as I drove away from not Cool no Springs, thinking it was funny that what got me safely through the traffic was not paying attention to that truck, which I did after the first glance. It often appears that the mantra today is; don’t pay attention. Ignore your phone messages, your e-mails, the news, your thoughts. The distractions out there will make you negative or inefficient or worn out. Don’t pay attention is as much the New Age moniker as pay attention, isn’t it? So what are we practicing?
Many yoga students have heard the terms sthira, which means steady and alert and sukha which means happy and comfortable. The term asana means posture or seat. The Hatha yoga (physical practice) student is reminded that the posture must be accompanied by sthira and sukha. Using asana and breath we train our bodies and minds to be comfortable and cheerful in demanding situations. Many teachers will tell you the fruits of that work will extend beyond the classroom. You may find that for yourself or you may not. To my mind, one won’t reap those fruits if he doesn’t practice attention and steadiness in everything he does. It’s the paying attention that comes first which is why many folks orbiting the yoga field have also heard the popular recommendations for happiness; Live in the Moment or Be Here Now or One Day at a Time or Be Present.
We learn to hold our attention so that we can be present, steady, be comfortable in a world that demands we spread our attention everywhere. We are hopefully not learning to ignore or filter (which is the nice way to say it), but to pay attention to everything without freaking out. This means we are pressed to greater comprehension as life gets more complicated.
I dug up Tom’s letter when I got home. I had remembered the “pay attention” but hadn’t thought about his opinion of creative writing school in years. It occurs to me that I am of the same mind as a yoga teacher who has given similar advice to students asking about teacher trainings. You don’t need yoga school for teachers. You will learn if you take time, read books, take classes and workshops and pay attention to everything that happens right there.
(Since you often need a certificate to teach now, I have changed my advice to add, go to a yoga school if you need a certificate but put in the time first.)