Last year I took a mindfulness course with the wonderful Mark Øvland: Mark radiates a calm, poised, mindful approach to life, introduced us to the concept of living with an Attenborough Attitude. By that, of course, he meant that we could learn from the David Attenborough, the incredible British broadcaster and naturalist who has, for decades, brought us close to the miracles of the natural world.
Mark explained how this ‘Attenborough Attitude’ works:
A skilful way to relate to [our minds] is with an ‘Attenborough Attitude’ – with kindness and curiosity, giving them space, being respectful and not struggling against them.
He described how our minds are often like wild animals: beautiful and complex but also wilful and difficult to tame. As with animals (and, in my experience, small children), the more we shout and dictate and impose constrictions, the more our minds seize up, shut down and retreat.
By contrast, Attenborough’s approach is one of intrinsic and unconditional love, of kindness, of openness, of curiosity, of respect and of appreciation. An approach with allows the subject to be fully itself.
As ever, I thought of how this relates to my life as a human being and as a writer. In my 35 Things I’ve Learnt birthday post I wrote about how curiosity and gratitude were my two top values. I think these both epitomise Attenborough’s attitude towards his work and life. My teacher, Mark, was encouraging us to treat our minds with greater sensitivity and compassion. The same is true for how we should treat our hearts and our bodies. And, coming back full circle to Attenborough and his work, it’s how we as writers and artists should treat the subjects we observe, for it’s only then that we can fully understand them and so write about them with authenticity.
All this ties in with looking at the world through our own lens, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. A lens that is kind and gentle and respectful, that looks at its subjects with curiosity rather than judgement, and always with love, a love that reveals deep truths. When we look at our world in that way, our stories come to life.
As a writer, we are forever observing. Our observational skills need to be even more complex and sensitive that Attenborough’s: we do not have the luxury of specialising in animals alone – though animals are the most wonderful creatures to observe and should, in my opinion, feature more frequently in novels.
We must have an Attenborough Attitude to the whole world and everything in it.
To people and trees, to blades of grass and the rain on the tarmac, to conversations and arguments and kisses, to how an old man crosses the street, to how a child reaches up for his mothers hand, to how the moon disappears behind the clouds, to how a thief places her hand in an old woman’s purse, to the beginning of life and to its final breath and everything in-between.
As writers, we watch life and when that observation meets our imaginations, we create stories that are destined to live in the hearts of our readers – but this magical process will only happen if we have watched and imagined with curiosity, kindness and gratitude.
Here is a wonderful clip of Attenborough engaging with a gorilla, perhaps the animal closest to us in body and character. it says everything we need to know about mindfulness and about observing our subjects with love.
Think about how you can bring an Attenborough Attitude to every part of your life today, including your creative life.