Paying attention and losing my shoes

When it rains it pours. This was my thought walking home through the dark, wet streets one night recently after a dentist appointment where I’d been told I needed treatments that would cost me close to a month’s earnings. Why now, just as I was planning to move? How was I going to afford everything? I felt despondent, defeated by this latest curveball.

The next morning I woke up to a beautiful autumn day, my day off when I usually go to a coffee shop nearby to write. I walked along the Kanda river, dry leaves drifting onto the path ahead of me, damp from the recent rain. The sun was warm on my face as I breathed in the mossy scent of the water and the late-flowering jasmine growing on the hedges bordering the pathway. I came to the small bridge beneath which at certain times of the day khoi fish gather to catch the sun or wait for food. Everything felt manageable, as it usually does in the daylight. I thought of the recent typhoon and the utterly still sunny sky that had followed it, known as taifuika (台風一過) in Japanese.

The Kanda river in summer

That morning I’d listened to an episode of Aliens and Moonbeams, a podcast exploring what it’s like to be a foreigner in Japan. Its multi-talented creator, Jes, also moved from Sendai to Tokyo this year. Her work is always thoughtful, evocative, moving. At the end of this episode, called “Tokyo glow”, she is on a dance floor, and as her new friend pulls her up onto the stage she takes one last look at her phone and the recent email that had delivered bad news, and then puts it away.

I can already see how this scene plays out in a film or a short story, or even something I’ll probably draw about later so that I can feel better. That’s when I realize that this is it. This is the Tokyo glow, because even when everything feels like absolute shit, the dream is still very much alive.

Recently, without realising it, I had been waiting – for things to be resolved, to settle down, for certain things to happen. But it’s all happening already. This is it. The art, the glow. As I walked, I felt connected to Jes and her words, to the people I’ve started to meet through writing, to people I haven’t yet met. I felt a surge of something like hope, though without expectation – faith, maybe. And gratitude.

Aliens and Moonbeams

A few days later, I opened a letter that had been sitting on my desk for a while. Inside was a set of health insurance bills for the next six months, each for over thirty thousand yen. I thought about my mounting expenses, and a familiar feeling began to arise: panic, self-pity, overwhelm. But there was a shift. I recalled reading on a Facebook group about someone else having to pay this amount because their company didn’t cover health insurance. So it wasn’t a complete shock. I had no idea how I would pay it, but for a change I was able to accept that it was night time, and there was nothing I could do about it right away. Probably there wasn’t much I could do at any point. It was as it was. It would be dealt with one way or another. And then there would be another challenge.

As the year comes to a close, most things in my life remain uncertain – where I’m living and working, for instance. But I’m finally getting a bit more used to this feeling of not knowing.  I am fighting against things less, not spending so much time waiting for each challenge to be over. I’m a little more aware and accepting of the fact that everything is always changing, from one second to the next. And this can be comforting rather than unsettling. Because you can always choose to be okay, to cope, in this second.

Stress increases relative to your sense of time – that is, the more time you “create” in your mind: ten minutes of performing a boring task, half an hour of suffering through a painful treatment, several months of living with uncertainty, a year of facing hardship. Thoughts like those bring on anxiety. But one second? You can always be okay in this second. And this one. And what else is there?

I’ve been rereading Eckhart Tolle, whose books I first read in the year of contemplation and semi-retreat that preceded my move here. His work was profound to me then, and planted the seeds of a new awareness. But now, in the midst of all these external changes and challenges, it resonates a little differently.

Over the last three months, some of what I’ve been learning has been put into practice – and some of it completely abandoned as I let so-called obstacles overwhelm me. I remember wondering, last year, how these new practices and knowledge would hold up when put to the test. Would they fly out the window completely, or save me? Both, I think. But I believe that once you’ve been woken up there is no going back to being completely asleep again. I may need to be shaken constantly, like an alarm on permanent snooze, but I’m awake.

Looking at the bills, I recalled what Tolle says about life giving us whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of our consciousness. “This should not be happening” is just one of the ego’s stories, he says. The ego being the voice in our head that we mistakenly identify as “I”, when we are so much more. The ego resents challenges and thinks they should not exist. To the ego, it seems that obstacles are constantly arising. But what if we were to do what so many philosophies and spiritual teachings suggest: Stop resisting what is already happening. Tolle’s suggestion is to “accept every moment as if you had chosen it. Make it your friend and not your ally,” his words echoing the Greek Stoic Epictetus:

Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will – then your life will be serene.

These bills were not some punishment. Nor were they necessarily some profound life lesson. But right in that moment, holding them in my hand, they need not have any effect on me. Any passing negative feeling about them was coming from the voice in my head and not those pieces of paper. I was absolutely fine, warm and safe and about to get into my comfortable bed. There was nothing that needed to be different. As Zen master Rinzai asked his students in order to take their attention away from focusing on past and future, “What, at this moment, is lacking?”

At the coffee shop the day after my dentist appointment, I looked around at the other customers with their laptops and notebooks, and imagined they too were appreciating this silent companionship. This is something I love about Japan – the many coffee shops where people come by themselves to study or read for hours at a time, without feeling pressured to leave. I thought of a story from Frank Ostaseski’s The Five Invitations, about a terminally ill man called Lorenzo who felt that he did not want to live if he could no longer engage in his favorite activities, which are also mine – writing, and walking in the park. Shortly before he died, however, he came to this realisation:

It is not the activities that bring me joy. It’s the attention to the activities. Now my pleasure comes from the coolness of the breeze and the softness of the sheets.

On my next day off the following week there was no time for writing as I had to go to Immigration, the Ward Office, and a new dentist. I left at seven, travelled all over the city, by bus, train and subway, returning after dark. Some of the problems were partially resolved. Others were further complicated. But it was another perfect autumn day, throughout which I kept bringing to mind Tolle’s words about the present moment being all we ever have, about accepting each moment as if we’d chosen it, and this:

Just as the moon has no light of its own, but can only reflect the light of the sun, so are past and future only pale reflections of the light, power, and reality of the eternal present. Their reality is “borrowed” from the Now.

Shinjuku East Side Square

Coming out of the ticket gates at Shinagawa Station that morning I looked up at the impressive curved glass roof, the light streaming through it onto a sign reading “This” is my life. I smiled, thinking of Jes’s Tokyo glow. Then I walked into a quiet sea of people, possibly the largest crowd I’ve ever been in, it was like being part of a peaceful rally, hundreds and hundreds of people walking side by side in silence, slowly but steadily through this broad, high-ceilinged walkway towards the east exit.

On the bus, I passed skyscrapers, a harbour busy with cargo ships, giant concrete structures all around; futuristic Tokyo. Later in the day, across town, I sat on a bench overlooking a square of stylish modern buildings, admiring the contrasting textures and lines as I ate a late lunch of onigiri, sweet ham rolls and coffee.

Then, on the way to the Ward Office, on a train running though a suburban part of the city, a group of high school students got on, chatting and laughing, the boys and girls forming separate groups that were acutely aware of each other. Sun pooled on their book bags tossed carelessly on the floor, green trees and wooden houses flashed by, my woolen jersey felt soft and warm against my skin and I could smell the perfume a teacher had given me when I left Sendai. It was as Tolle described. Everything was vibrant, vivid, very much alive.

In the past three months, I’ve had moments of frustration, anxiety and doubt. Yet there have been many more moments like these, when I’ve felt a deep joy and appreciation for what was happening right then and there. They seemed small, because I’ve been conditioned to disregard such everyday happenings and give more gravitas to the big events like moving cities or falling in love, or the darker feelings of failure and loss.

But after listening to Angela Ledgerwood’s conversation on Lit Up with Karl Ove Knausgaard, I read his exquisite essays, odes to everyday objects which he has memorialised for his youngest daughter. And I thought about how these things are not small at all, that they are everything. Reading his description of “the yellow-red leaves lying wet and smooth on the flagstones … How the stone darkens when it rains, lightens when it dries”, I thought what could be more beautiful or important or worth writing about?

As Lorenzo came to see, it is not the leaf or the tile but the attention being paid to these things. This is the deep truth. Attention. Awareness. Zen monk Ikkyu, when asked about the highest wisdom, responded by writing: Attention. And when pushed for more clarity, added: Attention. Attention. Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello reached the same realisation, putting it as Awareness. Awareness. Awareness. This is where true peace resides. Not in pleasure, which comes from external things that may leave or be taken away – a possession, success, a lover – but joy in being completely present and aware and appreciative of the moment.

A few weekends ago, I went to the finals of the Japan Open tennis championships. In the row ahead of me was a family, a teenage boy and girl with their parents. The girl was taking a photo of the food she’d just bought. Her father, in the seat next to her, leaned across pretending to take a bite before she’d got her picture. Later, her brother watched as she had a taste of his ice cream, his body strained anxiously towards her checking to see she didn’t take too much. Here was the life of a family contained in one brief little scene. It was just as satisfying to watch as the tennis match.

Family at Yokohama Port

On the train one afternoon, a little girl in a ribboned bowler hat and doll-like uniform sat feet just reaching the edge of her seat, leaning against her father, one small hand resting in his much larger palm as they looked at something on his phone. Another pair of hands next to mine on the tightly packed morning commute, resting side by side on top of a briefcase. I noticed how the right thumb was tucked into the palm, a self-protective gesture. In the thousands of people I pass each day, I often see my own gestures mimicked and mirrored. A woman flicking out her fingers as she crosses a road. A man leaning almost imperceptibly towards one leg.

All these tiny beautiful moments in transit. Each morning, I listen to the clatter of footsteps inside Shibuya Station that sound like rain, the trains overhead like gentle thunder – neither sound interrupted by the voices of commuters who move as if still half-asleep and dreaming.

One night on a bus on the highway returning from a Halloween party in the countryside, I looked up from my book at the criss-crossing elevated highways and towering buildings scattered with windows like stars, a scene out of Lost in Translation.

Kokusai-Tenjijo Station at night

And then, brief moments of tenderness. Like the young man who works the night shift at the convenience store nearby. I’ve never seen the lower part of his face because he always wears a mask. He places the change on my palm with the gentleness of someone treating a child’s wound, and during my first few weeks here when I felt very alone at times, the kindness in this interaction made me want to cry.

Tokyoites, like other big city dwellers, tend towards brusqueness and aren’t always immediately warm on the surface, so the little gestures I previously took for granted now touch me more deeply. Like the teacher who typed out the names of more than five hundred students for me. At another school a teacher presented me with a box of chocolates out of the blue because she said she and her students could “feel my heart”. And there is the coworker at a center far south of the city center who on Friday evenings slips a package with some buttered rolls or fruitcake into my bag for the long trip home.

Not least of all, there are the children. The tiny first grader who at break time is carried around like a baby by the sixth-grade boys, insisting, “Sensei, mite, mite! Look at me!” as he performs on the jungle gym. The unselfconscious spontaneous hugs that children give, which are less gestures than genuine transmissions of feeling. And the boy with the David Beckham hairstyle who speaks English with a London accent, lovely to hear. Whatever challenges are going on in the rest of my life, being around these children restores me. Yesterday I read this line in Sylvia Plath’s beautiful journal, which she wrote after being left by a lover: “A little thing, like children putting flowers in my hair, can fill up the widening cracks in my self-assurance like soothing lanolin.”

As I am about to post this, I think of the past few days, the stress of applying for an apartment (notoriously difficult and expensive especially for foreigners), having my hopes raised and lowered as the agency continues to ask for more pieces of evidence and things I’m not sure I can provide. After one email where it sounded like I would not be approved, I was so caught up with anxiety and intent on responding to the message before the agency’s offices closed that I left my bag with my indoor shoes on the train – something I can’t afford to replace right now. I had to laugh, thinking of all these quotes I’d been posting recently about being in the moment. How less present could I be?

But that is already the past, and this is now: a chance to start again, to stop getting lost in time. As Zen master Dogen puts it: “Even the snap of a finger provides us with sixty-five opportunities to wake up and choose our actions.” And, this being Japan, I got my shoes back.

10 thoughts on “Paying attention and losing my shoes”

  1. “But I believe that once you’ve been woken up there is no going back to being completely asleep again.”~~~~
    I love this statement. It sums up what I see to be true in my life throughout the past 15 years. I have walked a crooked path to get where I am, It was all to bring me to this place of “awakening”. And I know that I will never be the same. As you said, once woken, you don’t truly find sleep again.
    You are a beautiful storyteller. Thank you for sharing your journey and forthcoming insights with us.

    1. Thanks, Vicky! It’s really lovely to hear from you 🙂 I know I’m often still asleep in certain situations and relationships, but I think once you’ve experienced the truth (there are so many words I could use here but you know what I mean!), you can’t “unknow” it, no matter how many times and for how long you get pulled back into unconsciousness.

      I’m looking forward to following your journey via your blog too xx

  2. Good luck with your situation, and cheers to many more days enjoying the glow! It’s such an accurate way of putting things. I’m glad I read it now, when I was worrying more about the future than enjoying the wonderful travelling I’m lucky to be doing.

    I love your writing, and the way that you make connections between your experiences and others’ writings. Have definitely moved Knausgaard’s Seasons Quartet up my reading list.

    1. Thank you, Lydia! That’s exactly my motivation to write — to make connections with the things I read/listen to and my experiences.

      And yay for reading Knausgaard. I feel like he’s a Scandinavian Proust 🙂

      Also I got the apartment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.