I take some inspiration from psychoanalyst Josh Cohen’s book, Not Working, mentioned in the newsletter, which is written in praise of inactivity and a healthy form of idleness I recently came across a term I had not heard before, a glimmer, I think coined by the psychotherapist Deb Dana, who is very influenced by Steve Porges’ work. A glimmer can be thought of as the opposite of a trigger, but the positive definition is that a glimmer is one of those tiny moments in our day when we sense some joy, or well-being, some easeful spark. It is linked with feeling safe, in the world, in our bodies and our nervous system so we take in and open up to the world in a different way.
But we can oh so easily miss these. I have seen this countless times in therapy with children. Sometimes there are half moments (glimmers of glimmers?) when a child seems to half sense something. If we are alert enough to draw attention to it, the world changes. I remember a very manic aggressive child who seemed to notice the sun come through the window. I would have missed it countless other times but this once I noted it aloud and we could think about the sun, sense it, feel its warmth, note how the rays changed the colours in the room. In time we could talk about him being someone who could notice things, who now had a mind capable of being interested and noticing, and someone who felt safe enough to take this in, to stop and be present to and enjoy glimmers.
In my own life I find something similar with ideas; they can fly around barely seen (glimpsed) but sometimes, just sometimes, I am present enough to stop and take them in, and from there they can be fed and watered and grow. I know poets and songwriters and others often describe something similar. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in her Field Guide to Getting Lost (Solnit, 2006) ‘Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark.
Of course summer holidays should be times for glimmers, and those of us who work too hard, and are overly preoccupied with other people’s thoughts and feelings, so need and deserve this opportunity. I wish us all more glimmers this summer, whether whilst mulling around footpaths, sitting around on benches, and hopefully not worrying much about having an agenda. This seems an increasingly rare experience in our timetabled world in which, as Kabat Zinn suggested, we are becoming human doings and not human beings! I worry that just being is becoming a lost art and that life is becoming much poorer as a result.
We have of course much to learn from children and from play, from time to build sandcastles, play make-believe games, muse, have fun, go with the flow. Are we losing this? You might remember the research a few years back suggesting that most people choose giving themselves an electric shock rather than sit still in silence alone; that still shocks me (excuse the pun). This is something the great paediatrician Donald Winnicott wrote about long ago, that ability to be alone, that sense of going-on-being, which is the root of being able to play and be creative but which depends so much on feeling good and safe in relationships, on being loved and cared for.
Winnicott was onto something when he linked the ability to feel safe and relaxed with play and creativity. The world we live in seems an increasingly pressured and driven one. Kids getting shepherded from activity to activity and never being just still is just one example, as is the temptation to always reach for some kind of distraction, particularly an electronic one, the moment there is a pause, a free moment, a gap. Like in the study mentioned, gaps seem increasingly intolerable, a feeling of course fed by tech whose aim is to keep us online for as long as possible. The danger though is that we develop jumpy brains and lose the capacity to be still or concentrate or spot and allow glimmers.
These are simple ideas and ambitions I know, but for many of us hard to make real. I am reminded of Mcgilchrist’s important thinking about the right hemisphere’s role in just being, sensing and feeling; Panksepp’s paeon to play is another inspiration, and then there is the work of neuroscientists on the default mode network, that incredible linked circuitry in the brain that fires up like crazy when we stop trying. It is interesting that this is when the brain uses huge amounts of energy, just when we think we are doing nothing! This is perhaps the seat of creativity we need to reclaim.
To quote Solnit again ‘It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.’
So here is to valuing play more, to doing less and BEING more, and hoping that we can allow the hazy lazy atmosphere of summer to stay with us. As Thich Naht Hanh is said to have exhorted, instead of saying ‘don’t just sit there, do something’, we should leave room to suggest ‘don’t just do something, sit there’. Time to glimmer!