“It’s when you set down the book and stare ahead and repeat the sentence in your mind again and again, apply it to every little thing you twist to make applicable.
You answer questions you didn’t know you were asking,
tie ends you left off years ago.”
– 101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think by Brianna Wiest
You might read hundreds of books in your lifetime. But who’s to say that you will have understood every one of them in the way that they are written?
Some books are translucently vivid; they capture, provoke, and release us in the same breath. Some are not. So we create literary images of them to store as memories. We change them even though we don’t intend to change them. We may even change them deliberately when they don’t fit into the mold of our imagination and past memories.
This means it’s easier to think of reading as a technique that fulfills our inner world. This would also infer that we’re inherently wired to read anything that’s written (and that we can understand) as naturally as we depend on shapes and relativity to survive.
Our allegiance to the physical world clashes with the inaccuracy and abstractness of existence and consciousness. But in the heart of hearts, it’s never enough to just believe in the materiality of life. All these are evident facts but they are incomplete truths. Likewise, the knowledge that reading is the means of achieving or coming closer to a goal is also an incomplete truth.
So much is lost when we hasten to read what we have already begun to read. Do we breathe faster only so that we can move on to the next breath?
This got me thinking about how, over the years, my ideal way of reading books (the method itself) has changed. This is where the paths of reading and meditating meet. It may be because of my subjective experiences, but, somehow, I no longer see them as creative mindful practices. The fixation that one must read and one must meditate as “healthy habits.” They’re as inseparable to me as eating is to quench my hunger.
Gustave Flaubert wrote in of one his letters, “What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half a dozen books.”
I like to believe that who Flaubert considers as a “scholar” is someone who is privy to even his own literary inclinations. So much so that his reading becomes a sentient and passionate act. And to isolate it from the person himself would seem futile.
Having said that, I want to write about how reading is but a form of meditation.
1. It’s okay to forget
I’ve cursed my forgetful memory more times than I can even remember. Ironic, right? But we’re all guilty of this flaw. The constant reading and re-reading of a sentence or a passage that moved you only so that you can commit it to memory. As a result, the hidden meaning of the words is lost.
This is where I realized the trap of my ego. It’s when I manufacture my own inferred meaning from the words on the page. So I want to remember them, jog them, and flaunt them as if they submit to my will.
This is not true.
It’s possible to expect fulfillment by denying it. The act itself is fulfilling.
In the same way, I realized that the fruits of literature are as unpredictable and ambiguous as my memory. So what if I stop trying to forcefully remember stuff in order to be moved by it?
2. Stop proving to yourself (and to others) that you’re a reader
How does one possible to prove to others that one breathes?
There lies an effortless and fluent pace of meditating.
When you lose the rhythm of focusing on your breath, how do you bring yourself back to it? It’s not by resisting the force of another thought, you simply acknowledge it and bring yourself back.
To learn how to read, you do not need a revelatory passage of time. Perhaps you don’t even need to be swept off your feet. Reading can have a self-controlled pace. It’s a contrast between desperation and tranquility. The moment you accept this approach to reading, the more satisfyingly meaningful will be your reading experience. Even if, on any busy day, it lasts for 30 minutes or so.
The boundaries that dictate the length of time (between short and long) are nullified. Rather the only constant that matters is the volume of time. What it contains, the observations, even the silent, contemplative explorations.
When you’re consumed by such comforts, finding the time to keep assuring yourself that you’re a reader seems pointless. Opening a new book only so that you can finish it is just a futile effort. A complete waste of time, on your part, and a waste of knowledge if we entertain the possibility that there is more than one way to read a book.
3. Books neither add nor subtract from your life
Is it possible to assume that the human mind is infinite? That a person can understand and act as one understands.
We always fall into what I call the “entitlement trap.” It’s when you read a new book, say about human archetypes, and at the end of it, you assume that it’s giving you new information about the workings of the mind. And as you familiarize yourself with these concepts, you find in them certain idiosyncrasies that match yours.
This, over time, builds an unhealthy pattern. Where you expect the book to provide you with something new, that you didn’t already know or understand before, and only then would the book be a “fruitful” read.
The space between choosing a new book to read and what you think you’re capable of reading gets narrower and narrower.
But the truth is that what books do is unwrap one of the many possibilities in your mind. So the acquired information may feel brand new and ground-breaking. But what’s actually happening is that you’re discovering new lands within yourself rather than building them.
What’s left to build, however, is how you connect those aspects of yourself you’ve so eloquently and unexpectedly discovered.
4. Sometimes reading encourages detachment
The science of continued meditation shows that feelings of detachment or the “unsticking of the self” are natural responses. How we’re less likely to attach ourselves to certain narratives as we strengthen (and calm) the brain especially when at ease.
So it’s not muscle memory but the complete stillness of mind that leads to this realization.
This got me thinking about all the books I’ve read in all the moods I’ve read. These so-called “narratives” are simply our life stories. It’s one thing to recognize it but it’s a whole other thing to be driven by it.
And reading, at least for me, has led me to distance myself from myself. Perhaps not always when some degree of detachment is required. But this network between a microscopic and telescopic way of viewing life has only intensified because of it.
I am more aware of but not attached to my emotions and thoughts that are but the products of my own mind, my surroundings, and of the relationship between the two.
This also brings up the aforementioned aspect of reading, which is entitlement. When you’re less likely to attach yourself to a fixed narrative, you are less possessive of it. As a result, understanding yourself becomes less rigid and more transitory; capable of possessing new forms and extending to familiar and unfamiliar relationships.