Have you heard of Street Wisdom? It’s a non-profit venture that shows people how to use the streets around them to get intuitive answers to questions about their lives.
‘It’s a simple idea, based on the proposition that the environment and people around us are full of wisdom we largely overlook or ignore. Street Wisdom allows us to tune into the rich stimulus and learn. As our strap line says – answers are everywhere – you just have to ask.’
I’ve been intrigued by this since I first saw it, as it seems to me to have a lot in common with contemplative photography. The aims are somewhat different, but there’s a big overlap and the process is really very similar. So when I saw a London-based ‘train the trainer’ event on Street Wisdom’s site, I felt compelled to sign up for it, even if it did seem a bit premature to be training to run events when I hadn’t even been on one and didn’t really know what’s involved.
The format goes like this: the first hour is for ‘tuning up’ and getting you into the right space in your head to absorb what the street has to tell you. The second hour involves going off on your own on a wander round the streets, with a question in your mind that you’d like answered, and an openness to letting the answer come to you through what you see, hear and feel as you walk. The third hour is spent sharing experiences with the rest of the group.
You come prepared with a question to ask. It can be anything, but the more specific it is the better. You want to avoid anything too simple or prosaic, like ‘what shall I cook for dinner?’ and anything too deep and non-specific, such as ‘what’s the meaning of life?’. You aim for something somewhere in the middle for which you’d really like an answer.
I’ve been working recently on a change of direction, as some of you know. I want to move away from ‘how to work the camera’ courses and towards a contemplative, more creative approach that doesn’t depend on a knowledge of technology to allow you to participate meaningfully in photography. One thing that has bothered me about this is the question of finding the people I could offer this to. I know they’re out there, but I’m not sure how to attract them. This was my question, then: ‘how do I find my ideal clients?’.
We were a very large group so we were divided up into four smaller groups, each led by one of the Street Wisdom team. I’d been curious about the tune-up part of the day, and despite being incredibly simple it was amazingly effective. We were sent off on a series of roughly ten-minute walks, on our own, with a simple instruction to follow each time. These were: ‘Look for what attracts you‘, ‘Slow…..right……down‘, ‘Listen to the story‘, and ‘Find the beauty in everything‘.
I found the ‘slow right down’ instruction particularly effective. This isn’t usually something I have any problem with, and I’m used to doing it for photography purposes, but I hadn’t tried doing it in a busy, bustling space like Covent Garden. I was already moving pretty slowly by this time, but I slowed even more, eventually just sitting for a while and looking. It created a calm space within me, unaffected by the hustle and hurry going on all around. When you let go of trying to get somewhere or achieve anything, you’re able to stay in the moment, which is a very calming place to be.
Once we’d got ourselves all tuned up and in the zone, it was time to go out on an extended walk with our question in mind. I wandered off towards some quieter streets as I was feeling a little tired by then. The temptation is to think too much and to actively look for answers, rather than just letting them come to you. Initially I had a sense of forcing it slightly, probably because I was worried I wouldn’t ‘get’ anything, so I had to let that worry go and simply walk and look and listen, letting it come to me rather than hunting it down. This is where the value of the tuning up exercises kicks in – they put you into a relaxed mental state that helps prevent your rational mind getting too much of a look in.
The first thing that struck me as having significance was this bridge. It connects two buildings, one old and one new, and my reaction was that this is what I’m trying to do – find a passageway that will take me from the old to the new. I’m also trying to move from a traditional (old) idea of how to teach photography to a new one. The new approach is very different and may take a little getting used to for participants, just like the bridge. The bridge was oddly twisted – almost like a strand of DNA. DNA is about life and the form it takes – was this telling me that my new direction is ‘in my genes’? what I’m meant to do? A new form of life? I feel there’s quite a lot to unpack in this symbol of connection, but it needs time to percolate in my mind before the full meaning becomes clear to me. What I do know is that it was an important symbol for me that stopped me in my tracks.
I’d noticed that I was looking up a lot and shortly after this became aware of several planes crossing the sky, prompting the thought that I should be aiming to fly high. I’ve always played it small in my life – one of my biggest issues – because it simply wasn’t safe to be visible as a child. If I was noticed, I was criticised, told off, put down, and the instinct to hide is still strong. The signs were telling me that it was time to let this go, aim higher and make myself visible.
The next sign reinforced this message. High up, a small tree was perched at the edge of a roof garden. It seemed to be thrusting towards the sky, climbing as high as it could. It was obviously out of its normal environment, and there was something a bit precarious about it, but I admired it for its courage to grow wherever it was placed and to reach for its full potential. Although it looked quite vulnerable, I realised that as long as it was well-rooted it was quite safe up there. The message doesn’t need spelling out!
There was also this tree, which stood there defiantly being itself. Despite only having the barest beginnings of new leaves, it looked totally confident in itself, willing to show its true, unadorned nature to the world.
Next were a row of telephone boxes – communicate, tell everybody about it.
Then this – DUMP, which I took to mean ‘dump the rubbish’ and get on with what I really want to do.
This was followed by ‘Building on your design’ – suggesting to me that I should build on what I’ve already established, and also that I could build on the design of the Street Wisdom event. There were a number of things they did that I could use as a foundation for my own work and adapt for my own purposes.
And finally, ‘Kickstart your day the rockstar way’. This really made me smile, and also reminded me that eating breakfast is a good idea – something I frequently don’t do.
We reconvened after this, and discussed our experiences in the group. Everybody had gained something valuable from it, and as it was a training event there was a lot to discuss around the business of how to do it ourselves. The thing that most surprised me was how very relaxed I felt. I’m not comfortable in busy, noisy environments and tend to be quite badly affected by the general hustle, bustle and impatience all around me. I like the stimulation of cities, but I find them hard to handle. At this point, though, I was chilled!
Even without the series of signs and messages, I’d have got a lot from this. Realising how it was possible to stay in a calm and quiet space even in the midst of crowds and noise was a revelation to me. As someone pointed out, this is meditation, although of a different kind to what we expect. As a kind of practical urban version of it, it avoids the sometimes off-putting connotations that go along with the word and more people are likely to be open to its benefits.
We were urged to run an event of our own in the next two weeks so as to consolidate our learning, even if we only do it with a couple of friends. I definitely intend to do this, although I’m not sure at the moment who I’m going to ask as most of my local friends are tied up right now with various life and family crises. So if you happen to be in the Newark/Lincoln area and you want to try this, please do get in touch.
I loved the day, the organisers were lovely people – thank you, Jim – and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the other participants. Street Wisdom is a terrific concept, all the better for the fact that it’s offered free of charge. I urge you to give it a go – have a look on the website to see what’s happening in your area. And watch this space……….