The power of quiet attention: “Mzansi Zen” reviewed

Antony Osler’s new book – a patchwork of poetry, parable and memory – offers a gentle reminder of the power of embracing the present.

mzansi-zen-coverAt the end of July last year, I moved out of the flat I was sharing in Cape Town and became a nomad. Since then, I’ve visited Lesotho, Malawi and Zimbabwe once, Mozambique six times, and Swaziland five. In South Africa, the past year has seen three Kruger trips, a traversing of the Waterberg biosphere reserve, a few Cape Town visits, and too many times in Joburg to count. But the very first stop, marking the beginning of nomadic life, was a night spent at Poplar Grove, the farm where Antony Osler lives with his wife Margie.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Oslers lately, a lot about Poplar Grove, about sitting in the zendo listening to the roof gently expand in the morning heat. I’ve been thinking a lot, too, about the way I’m living my life — about how out-of-kilter it feels like I’ve become. Initially, the relentless movement was exhilarating — it felt right, a response to the wanderlust that had been coursing through me, wanderlust so powerful that it had made sense to stop renting in Cape Town in the first place.

But at some point in the past few weeks, the pendulum has swung. While I’ve been stimulated by all the places I’ve been to, all the people that I’ve met, I’m also flailing, slightly. After a relative lull, my OCD has flared up again: irrational, anxious thoughts bombard me like waves against a harbour’s wall, fuelled, perhaps, by the uncertainty and stress inherent in an itinerant lifestyle. Productivity is at best inconsistent — finding focus or establishing routines on the road has proven difficult. There is thinking, sure, but it’s often thinking of the murky, befuddled kind: the thoughts flow past, rather than being allowed to sink into stillness so that they can amass into something of substance. I’m growing tired of being a tumbleweed: there’s a yearning now that is perhaps almost the opposite of wanderlust — to become much more sedentary again, to put down roots again for a time — however shallow those roots may be.

I recently returned to Cape Town where a copy of Mzansi Zen has been waiting patiently for me — like a wise and gentle friend. I am grateful for it. It is exquisite: a vividly wrought, eclectic patchwork of poetry, parable and memory. In the acknowledgments, Osler says his wife read the first draft and told him, “Now write it as if you are telling it to me on the stoep.” He clearly followed her advice, because these stories brim with warmth and twinkly-eyed humour. Whether it’s about singing the then-banned Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika in a township community hall or his Indian friend, Raj, learning to play jukskei with a bunch of boere, each anecdote sounds as if it is being regaled to me while I sit on an old couch with a glass of whisky — as we did all those months ago — watching the last of the sun dance on the cypresses.

Mzansi Zen doesn’t shy away from life’s difficulties and complexities — instead, like a warm bath in a rainstorm or a cup of honey-sweetened rooibos, it makes them bearable. The book is no mere emollient, however. Like Osler’s previous works (Stoep Zen and Zen Dust), it is a gentle introduction to a way of life, a way of seeing the world, and a way of responding to it. You won’t find didactic proselytising, no shoulds and musts — it’s not a rulebook, not a manifesto. It is an example, an inspiration. It is a celebration of the power of attention, stillness, of being open, of being truly here and now. But unlike so much of mindfulness’s rhetoric — phrases which are sometimes used over and over till they are bleached of meaning — the power of the present is explored here in life, in colour.

Woven between snapshots of Karoo life are explanations of what unfolds on the weeklong silent retreats that the Oslers host on their farm. While there is listening, work, walking and eating, it is meditation which sits at the heart of these retreats — and at the heart of this book. Meditation is when we stop moving, stop searching and let the world come to us, letting it flood in, in all its richness. Osler shows us that by paying attention (on our breathing, on the sounds, however subtle, that we hear when we are seated), we are — as he once told me in an interview — strengthening “the muscle of attention”. The quiet concentration of such a practice strengthens our ability to inhabit the present in a fuller and more generous way. And as the book’s stories show, this naturally and inevitably leads us to find beauty in the quotidian, to acknowledge the remarkable in the ordinary. And as we learn to face “whatever is in front of us” — as we practise seeing it, acknowledging it — we become at peace with it; clarity emerges and we find a way to move forward.

As someone who compulsively observes our fraught political landscape with a mixture of fascination and alarm, I love the way this book embraces how tightly intertwined politics is with the personal in South Africa. Politics is close to home (and even closer to heart) in a way that it simply isn’t in many other countries. As he reflects on our country’s turbulent past and its uncertain future, Osler shows us how his Zen practice is not something adjacent to the broader social and political milieu we’re part of; it is not something divorced from the headlines we see, the radio’s murmurings, the highs and lows of a nation in transition — a bewildering state of corruption and decay, of courage and rebirth. He does not ask us to ignore our fears; instead he invites us to feel hope — hope in the warmth and the humour of the people he meets, in the beauty of a winter’s day.

I was particularly touched by this:

There are fistfights in parliament and police on the take, and past the window runs a small boy with water spilling from his hands and we ask ourselves what kind of world will we leave our children?

This question itself is the way. Our difficulty is our friend. We begin where we are, in our stuckness and helplessness and in our concern for the other. If we are patient in this, and willing to be surprised, we will wake up one morning to find that a gentle rain has been washing the leaves while we sleep. In this space our natural connectedness appears — with ourselves, with each other, and with the world around us. So, instead of trying to pull ourselves up by our bootlaces, let’s take off our shoes altogether, feel the earth under our feet and the sun in our hair. Then, when we step forward with helping hands, we will leave no trace.

Through his work as lawyer, and as the host of seasonal weekend retreats for local Karoo kids (many of whom have suffered from abuse and neglect), Osler has some inkling of the trauma, the seemingly boundless pain this country contains. What do we do in the face of this — overwhelmed, do we simply ignore it? He writes:

Of course there is still unhappiness and suffering on every corner. It doesn’t help to romanticise the children’s weekends, as if that is enough. Our work is never done. In Zen, that is called the Bodhisattva vow; as long as anyone is suffering I will keep going. This is not a vow of measurement, comparing the unthinkable magnitude of suffering with the smallness of my actions. It is just a promise to myself that whenever I am faced with pain I will not turn away.

Since I became a nomad, since that night in August last year, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to return to Poplar Grove. What I do have, though, is Mzansi Zen to remind me of what we carry within ourselves. While the Karoo is particularly conducive to silence and attention, these are elements that can practised anywhere.

I don’t know where the next months will take me or where I’ll be a year from now. I do intend, though, to move less and notice more. To focus on the what-is, rather than the what-is-not. To listen to the birdsong and feel the brush of breeze on skin. And to breathe, and breathe again, and again. I’m going to try set aspiration and dreaming and yearning aside sometimes, and revel in the moment — this, here, now — revel in it being enough, being everything, being nothing. Thank you, Antony, thank you, Mzansi Zen, for the reminder. It is enough.

Mzansi Zen is published by Jacana. This review was first published on AERODROME on 30 September 2016.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: