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On Contemplation: A Dawn to Dusk Solo in a Wilderness Setting

On Contemplation: A Dawn to Dusk Solo in a Wilderness Setting

Dr Laura Bissell, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Figure 1: Knoydart

In March 2013 I attended a week long residency in Knoydart in the Western Highlands of Scotland. This area has been called “Britain’s last wilderness” and it is used by the Natural Change foundation as a site for leadership training which “catalyses social change for a fair and sustainable future” (Natural Change, 2014). The curriculum design of the Contemporary Performance Practice BA (Hons) Programme at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has been influenced by Natural Change processes (Kerr and Key, 2013) and I travelled to Knoydart to experience an embodied understanding of this. My pedagogy has been influenced by bell hooks’ vision of “transformative education” (hooks, 2003: 181) and Rachel Naomi Remen’s assertion that “we must have the courage to educate people to heal this world into what it might become” (Remen in hooks, 2003: 181) and I was keen to see how this “reflexive practice” (Kerr and Key, 2013: 5) in a natural setting could influence my teaching. During this cold but bright period in March I spent in the wilderness with colleagues and with strangers, I stepped away from my usual life for a week and found time and space for contemplation. I undertook a “solo” and sat from dawn until dusk alone on a small isolated beach and for the first time in a long time, stopped. It has taken me until now – almost two years later – to process and contemplate what that rare experience of stillness and contemplation was and how it has affected my practice. Here I attempt to communicate and illustrate this experience through my notebook entries and my more recent reflections on it.

On Natural Change, I thought about:

The world and my place in it

How a day lasts a whole day

The challenges of being still

Home, the sea I see every day and the coastline I am familiar with

How small things can get bigger

The fact I have never spent a whole day from dawn till dusk outside

My family, my friends, my work, my life

How experiences are translated through writing (and sometimes not)

How old the rocks are and the tirelessness of the sea

My body in the landscape

Rocks

Grass

Heather

Slate

Rockpool

Sea

Sky

 

This experience of being quiet in the landscape of Knoydart was the first time I have maintained stillness and solitude for this long. I reflected that the week before I had been travelling back from Australia and had spent a similar amount of time (around 15hours) in stasis on the plane as I travelled, but that this transitory time of being immobile while being moved through the air, did not lend itself to contemplation in the same way that this immersion and stillness within the landscape did.

My spot is between three large bits of rock with a large rock sticking up in the middle of the space. There is a small rivulet of stagnant, still water leading to the bay. Seaweed lines the walls of this. The colours are blue, purple, brown, green, sand, rust, white, slate, black, pink and yellow.

My intention is to find/explore stillness and I hope this spot will help me to do this.

Figure 2: Beach on Knoydart where I did my "solo"

When I arrived I built a small pile of stones at the “entrance” to my site. I touched these and asked the land if I could sit here for a while.

The light was very pink on arrival with cotton wool clouds. The sun is now up but not in my spot yet. As it is so sheltered I don’t think it will be the sunniest spot so this will be different from my experiences over the last few days.

Figure 3: Pile of stones at the entrance to my site

On the journey by train to get the boat from Mallaig to Knoydart snow began to fall and the landscape became concealed with white as we travelled north. I thought about being outside in the snow for long periods of time and how frail and vulnerable the human body is and how naturally inept it is to exist within the elements. This experience was about being "in nature" and I was glad that on arrival the weather was crisp and bright and that my day of stillness from dawn until dusk was about contemplation rather than survival; meditation over endurance.

Sensations in Stillness

Sound:

Wind, the occasional bird, very distant waves – a single boat engine.

(no tree noises, no animals, no voices, no footsteps)

Taste:

Fresh air

(no flavour, no food, no sweet, no bitter)

Smell:

Fresh air, sea air, hint of acridity from fire.

(no flowers, no perfumes, no fumes, no bodies)

Touch:

Paper, stone, wind on face and fingers, nylon.

(no metal, no skin, no synthetics, no moisture)

See:

Rock, water, weed, stone, shell, heather, snow, hills.

(no people, no boats, no planes, no man-made structures)

 

At the start of the day I found myself making lists of tasks I had to do on my return and feeling unable to quiet my mind. As the day passed and the light changed I began to adapt to my situation and to enjoy a feeling of contentedness within my environment. By sitting and thinking and occasionally writing I refused to adhere to my normal processes of productivity and constant thought and found this to be an exhilarating experience that felt very creative and restorative.

Word Association – “Stillness”

Calmness, peace, not moving, thoughts stopped or paused, contemplative, water, air, static, soft, death, sleep, safety.

It is still snowing which makes me unsure of how to work out the time. I don’t feel distressed at not knowing, I am just curious.

Over the course of the day I drift in and out of consciousness and am only aware of the changes in weather and the subtle shifts of the light. This freedom from the constraints of time made it easier to relinquish my thoughts to things other than tasks, work and commitments and have encouraged me to “observe” myself and my thoughts from a different perspective. At times I do think about work, but more about the ideology behind my practice and my teaching than the minutiae of everyday tasks.

The facilitators on the Natural Change process call these individual experiences of finding a site and spending long periods of time outside a “solo”. I have been thinking about the term “solo” and how it seems to be a term rooted in performance and I reflect on the performative nature of what I did yesterday. The distance from the stone circle, north to the water was 40 of my steps. In the time I was sitting on the rock by the sea I had to move back three steps, then another two to avoid getting wet. I liked the fact that my movement is determined by the tides and I used this as a sequence for East, South and West too. By performing these movements as part of a ritual, a choreography occurs and my “performance” is observed by the rest of the group at different points. Today on “solo” thoughts of performance are with me as I look at nature and observe myself on this small beach. Who am I doing this for? How will I take this forward into my own practice? What are the links between performance and nature? How can performance be sustainable? What are the contradictions/confusions between the live (ephemeral) and the sustainable (that which can regenerate)?

During this period of contemplation many questions came to mind about many aspects of my life. I did not feel any urgency to respond to these questions on that day, but many of them have lingered with me and have made their mark on my consciousness. My memories of this contemplative and creative time and my reflections on the questions that this period of stillness encouraged me to ask have travelled with me. My understanding of my embodied practice and pedagogical approach that aims for “freedom” (of thought and of educational experience) and “wholeness” (hooks, 2003: 181) (of life and of people) was allowed to develop while simultaneously considering and contemplating our place within the natural world. Like the traces of me that I left at the site (a small pile of rocks, an arrangement of shells and glass shards worn soft and opaque by the sea, my shape in the stones) this day of stillness and contemplation has left its mark on me.

Still

It is harder than it looks

To be still

It is not about just doing nothing

It is about stopping

The constant thoughts

Of actions to be done

And allowing the body

To drift while in stasis.

Figure 4: Arrangement of found items left at the site after my solo.

 

References

hooks, bell. (2003) Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. Routledge: New York.

Kerr, M.H. & Key, D.H. (2013) “Evidence of Natural Change - Case Studies from the Scottish education sector”. Natural Change Foundation: Edinburgh.

Natural Change http://www.naturalchange.co.uk/ (accessed 29/12/14)

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