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Spirit Story

Slowing to a still

By Kate Spencer

Lie on the ground. Leaves under the neck, soft wood above the head. Dusty cobwebs and sprouting mould. To the left, a swirl of dead leaves. To the right, a collection of stumps. Above, blue-white sky, mottled. And layers upon layers of hushed sounds: music of the leaves mixed with the white noise of distant vehicles; far off, a dog bark and the rhythmic thumping of some passing jogger.

The world is both infinite and tiny, and the brain sits somewhere in between, until the bobbing head of a dog walker pops into view, blocking the sky and filling the ears with talking noise. A harsh intrusion on the sit-spot buzz.

I was indoctrinated into sit-spot culture by a friend who loves nature education and all things that get city folk grass-stained and muddy. The sit spot is a place to go, to be still, to observe both the insides and outsides of your brain. You pick a spot — preferably one in the middle of nature, though I’ve heard of people choosing their own back steps — and you go to it. You go regularly and over an extended period. And you sit.

That sounds simple, doesn’t it? Even simplistic. But it’s astonishing what happens when you force yourself to stop moving and be quiet for a while. First of all, you are reminded of how amazing it can be just to be aware of your surroundings. To sit and watch a sky as it works its way from early afternoon to late evening, to really take in the range of colours, the dappling effects of clouds as they flit by. You are reminded of the brain’s ability to focus, to slow down. Your body begins moving to the rhythm of the earth, rather than the rhythm of other people’s footfalls as you hurry along the street.

And when you add in wildlife, well! You’d be surprised how quickly you end up sprawling on the grass, watching ants. Watching spiders. Watching those weird little bugs with the striped bodies and triangular wings. What is that, anyway? After your sit, you go home to look it up. Suddenly you’re learning, and then you’re that person who tells all their friends about the wonders of the potato beetle. It’s kind of nice to be that person again, whom you haven’t been since you were five and knew what it was like to be properly curious.

Sit spots are active stillness. My instinct is that if I am not moving, I am wasting time. It’s a real effort to appreciate the benefits of yoga, for example, because with each sun salutation, a voice inside my head is grunting, “Not . . . burning . . . any . . . fat.” We live in a culture of busy, where our worth is measured by how many items are obliterated from our to-do lists each day. So sit spots were a hard sell for me at first. I wiggled and mumbled and fussed, my body and mind refusing to believe that all I was meant to do was keep still. How are you supposed to talk about this over the dinner table? “What did you do today, dear?” “Well, I sat. Still. In one spot.”

In official sit-spot culture, as practised by naturalists and hippies of all kinds, there are activities you can engage in while at your sit spot. Observe the animals that visit. Study the local wildlife, and note which ones are useful or edible. Track your own impact on the surroundings. But for me, it’s been a much more personal and introspective journey into learning to sit still and shut up. To be more aware of myself and my surroundings. And to believe in my soul that this is an accomplishment worth being proud of.

Kate Spencer is a freelance journalist and marketing professional in Toronto.

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