Slow down and be in the story
Stories have always seen me through the darkness. At this time of year, I tend to want to rush forwards into spring, but the power of stories is helping me to stay within nature’s quiet space, with the cold and dark that’s still here, a necessary part of the cycle that needs to be completed before the light and warmth can truly emerge.
Reading was my refuge through a challenging childhood and adolescence, and I’ve returned to my love of fiction this past year to keep myself grounded. My local library’s current policy is that we can reserve and collect books ‘if reading books is essential for your own health and wellbeing’. A good novel keeps me away from too much news and social media – both of which, I’ve learned, are very quick ways to undermine my wellbeing.
This practice of reading has also helped me to recover my lost attention span, the ability to focus my attention on just one thing and be absorbed, which is sometimes used as a definition of mindfulness itself.
It’s a nourishing choice – to pick up a book instead of my smartphone – and one that gives me some of the same benefits that I get from meditation: I feel clearer, calmer and kinder when I’ve been lost in a story instead of a bottomless feed. That it’s so enjoyable is a bonus!
But it’s not a totally frivolous pastime. One of the best bits of advice I ever got on a meditation retreat was that reading a fictional book might do you just as much good as a spiritual text (the teacher was Paramananda). Similarly, author Jim Crace says ‘Fiction equips us to deal with the hardships that life is bound to deliver to us’.
I believe this wholeheartedly. I was recently reminded that a novel I had read as a teenager, and forgotten all about, had sowed some seeds that helped me to weather an extremely difficult experience I went through decades later. This must have happened at an embodied, somatic level, as I hadn’t remembered the book’s emotional wisdom with my thinking mind at all.
In my own somatic (body-based) mindfulness practice, I’ve learned to get closer to emotional body sensations that I had avoided for many years, and the effect has been transformative. I can’t help wondering if my process began by borrowing the embodied experience of literary characters, before I was ready to fully inhabit my own.
It has been noted by somatic practitioners such as Peter Levine and Bret Lyon that images are the language of the body, that they bring us closer to our somatic experience. Perhaps when we read fiction, we are not escaping so much as re-connecting.
Reading isn’t a passive act of absorbing a writer’s intention, it’s an act of co-creation, of shared meaning-making, and that’s what makes it powerful.
Sometimes, a whole novel feels like just too many words, so I’m grateful at the moment for collections of very short fiction*. This type of work invites us to read more slowly, more carefully, with closer attention, and to give ourselves more time to reflect. I can really spend time in the story, instead of rushing to get through it, and this too is a lesson that translates into life as a whole for me.
So whether we read for pure joy, or to learn more about how to be human, it’s a practice that’s every bit as worthy as the other things we do for wellbeing.
*(If you’re curious, Ad Hoc Fiction’s range is very letterbox-friendly too).