For a long time I thought that love was a feeling that’s beyond control — whose arrival is idiosyncratic and whose departure is as painful as it’s hard to explain. I thought that it was something that you waited for, a neurotic guest that you daren’t question too closely, lest you wake to find that they left before dawn. This has caused me problems in the past — I’d wait for love to arrive, thinking that it would deliver the energy and closeness that I craved, rather than taking action to create the conditions in which it could thrive. I’d examine my feelings in turn — this diffuse warmth, that amorphous fondness — to divine if the combination that I felt was the ‘love’ that people talk about. My understanding of love was focussed on an object that’s hard to detect and easy to project. I was never tumbled by a wave of emotion or pulled into a sea of passion, and so I found it hard to feel the certainty that I read about in books or heard from friends. I could squint and say to myself that I ‘feel some kind of way’ but in the long term, the deposition of my heart never withstood cross-examination by my head.
Over the last year or so I realised that the above approach is fundamentally flawed — love is neither a state, nor an event, it’s a practice. It arises out of the smallest daily actions and appreciations. It’s not lavish presents, impromptu holidays or treasure hunt proposals; but rather a couple juggling a toddler, shopping bags and dog lead, one partner fumbling with the keys, the other partner poised, hand on the door handle, ready to turn. I had mixed up the causality of devotion — I thought devotion was something you felt at the apex of love — when in fact devotion is something that you do. Devotion is the precondition for love as an emergent phenomenon. Spiritual traditions understand that action precedes feeling: they elevate simple things like hand washing or moments of gratitude to ritual status. They invite practitioners (literally: the devout) to use these mundane actions as doors to the sublime: to connect with their bodies, their emotions and the world. You perform the rituals to deepen and explore your faith, you don’t wait for faith to arrive so that you can get some quality hand washing in.
I was late to these insights, as my Rationalist and in earlier years, militantly atheistic tendencies, wouldn’t allow me to see anything of value in the traditions of these age old institutions. I wanted to burn it all down, to rebuild a new and better society from the ground up, without the baggage or bigotry of the past. This fire has cooled in recent years — I recognise that for something to endure, it must provide benefits to its adherents. This doesn’t mean that we need to accept the cruft and ceremony, the carapace of politics, corruption and dogma that forms around the vital (and often universal) wisdom at the heart of many spiritual traditions. I love Brother David Steindl-Rast’s description of old religious traditions as dead and cold volcanoes. They were originally dynamic, alive with creative and destructive energy, but over time they hardened into rigid and unchanging monoliths. A once rebellious sect becomes the establishment given enough time and power. (Often later, a figure like Martin Luther or Mother Teresa will arrive, crack the surface and the lava will flow again.)
My initial appreciation for the power of devotion came not through relationships but through creative practice and meditation. Seth Godin and Austin Kleon reframed my understanding of creativity to see it as a cyclical process of evolution grounded in daily dedication to the rituals of creating, refining and releasing. Rather than gaze out of the window waiting for the muse, you punch the clock and iterate, iterate, iterate. Simultaneously, I started to apply this approach to my daily meditation practice. Ironically, it was prioritising consistency over outcome that brought positive changes. In fact, I’ve found focus and attention, married with consistency and quantity to generate quality regardless of which area of my life I apply them too.
Through this process of devotion I’ve found a connection with someone of a depth and richness that justifies calling it love without reservation or equivocation. This didn’t come via grand gestures or fine words, but rather trash time well spent, harsh words unsaid, acts of service and a preference for kindness over cleverness. I don’t think it’s a surprise that these feelings solidified further during a year or so of external stresses, enforced proximity and restricted leisure. While huge changes swept the world, I think there’s an argument that for most people this was the year of the micro pleasure — we had to find meaning in the mundane. As my life in the world contracted, the distractions receded and I could focus on the people closest to me, to savour every nuance, quirk and flaw. This devotional practice — how close can you get, how much can you notice, how much can you care — runs in both directions: a duet of hugs, tears and fears, meals made, dishes done, cups of tea, cups of coffee, a hand on the head, a boop on the nose, silences sustained, silences broken, tangled limbs and empty rooms.
Imogen — thank you, I love you.
Hymn of the Cherubim — USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir
A slice of otherworldly beauty that makes your heart melt and your body vibrate
Spiegel im spiegel — Arvo Pärt, Angèle Dubeau, La Pieta
Simplicity, clarity and power from a modern master.
On Being with Brother David Steindl-Rast
An excellent episode of Krista Tippet’s always excellent podcast with Benedictine monk of 60 years, Br. David Steindl-Rast. An interview about gratitude and joy, “the happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens”.
Sex in Hindsight
A brilliant essay by Haley Nahman about sexual abuse and memory
Fish — a Tap Essay
A manifesto about the difference between liking something on the internet and loving something on the internet — told through the medium of its own (free) app. A worthwhile use of five minutes.
Too Many Needles by Oliver Burkeman
An essay about overwhelm in the form of interesting media to read/watch/hear and how to survive your “haystack-sized piles of needles.”
Guy Le Querrec
Article and pictures on the black and white master photographer who shot the jazz greats
Irina Rozovsky on ‘In Plain Air’
A lovely series of portraits shot in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in the heat of the summer.
Attention is the beginning of devotion