I came across Marion Milner’s book (originally published 1934) via How To Be Bored, which is surprising. The concepts she covers were much more in line with all of the books about meditation and Buddhism that I’ve been reading lately, so I figured that was where I’d stumbled on Milner.
I felt a little bad for Milner as I read her journey to discover how to side-eye/watch her own thoughts. The mindfulness books I was also reading gave really clear direction on how to take the steps necessary for this internal attention/silence/noticing, but here she was in the 1930s, toughing it out and struggling to figure out the puzzle with no guidance.
To begin with, she tracked what made her happy in a journal. “I want to live amongst things that grow, not amongst machines. To live in a regular rhythm with sun and rain and wind and fresh air and the coming and going of the seasons. I want a few friends that I may learn to know and understand and talk to without embarrassment or doubt.”
She performed “experiments” on herself and realized that she had an automatic response and a more hidden response. “It seemed to me that perhaps my previous ignorance of the ways of this self might be sufficient reason why I had felt my life to be of a dull dead-level mediocrity, with the sense of real and vital things going on round the corner, out in the streets, in other people’s lives.”
As she explores further, “I saw now that my usual attitude to the world was a contracted one, like the sea anemone when disturbed by a rough touch, like an amoeba shut within protective walls of its own making… I had thought I wanted a great many friends but had often refused invitations because I hated to feel the beautiful free space of an empty day, free for me to do what I like in, broken into by social obligations. I had thought I wanted to be a unique individual, but had been filled with shame when anyone disagreed with me, hastening to take back what I had said.”
If I had a time machine, I’d head back to whisper in her ear that the Buddhists have been working on this problem for thousands of years and that might be a good place to start. But then again, we’d miss her own personal exploration if that were the case.