Wednesday, January 2, 2013

"A door between me and the world" - on Marion Milner's A Life of One's Own - Part I

"I had sometimes found changes in mood follow when I tried to describe in words what I was looking at. So I said: 'I see a white house with red geraniums and I hear a child crooning.' And this simple incantation seemed to open a door between me and the world." 
(p. 55, Milner, Marion, A Life of One's Own, Routledge, Hove, 2011)

I have been wanting to write about the psychoanalyst, artist and writer Marion Milner (1900-1998) for so long now. These two books have accompanied me ever since I bought them, especially A Life of One's Own. The right books always seem to come to me when I need them, and this is a book that I know will be re-read many times.

Written in 1934 as a record of her seven-year quest to find out what makes her happy, it has a timeless quality and ranks among the classics in happiness literature.What she advocates is very Power of Now and mindfulness practice: that happiness is to be found in the space between thoughts, in letting go, in being in the moment, in being an observer instead of analysing.

The book is a very personal account, which makes it all the more absorbing and ultimately universal. The writing is beautiful and deep (yet very accessible), her sentences mirroring the movement of her thoughts, often in a stream-of-consciousness style. She is also as honest as possible, chronicling her petty thoughts, vanities, fears and failings as accurately as her eloquent musings and successes.

I will not attempt a summary or review as such, but mainly compile the parts that I want to remember. Here are those from chapters 1-4:

Milner starts by recording her experiences and feelings in a diary and soon comes to understand that the act of seeing is more important than what she sees. Writing helps her access her automatic self "beneath the ripples on the surface of my mind" (p.38): "It was as if I were trying to catch something and the written word provided a net which for a moment entangled a shadowy form which was other than the meaning of the words." (p.47)

She begins to notice that frequently thoughts get in the way of her enjoyment when, for instance, listening to music, visiting a gallery or watching a play. Feelings of inadequacy tend to intrude because she reckons she doesn't know enough about the subject and therefore cannot take it in properly, but she finds a solution: "I lost myself in a Schubert Quartet [...] partly by ceasing all striving to understand the music, partly by driving off intrusive thoughts, partly feeling the music coming up inside me, myself a hollow vessel to be filled with sound." (p.23)

All her insights lead towards inactivity and letting go and simply delighting in things. She discovers that she can move the core of her "I-ness"around her body, feeling herself into her heart, for example, to quieten her mind. Her awareness needs to flow around things she sees and does and expand from her body, as "my usual attitude to the world was a contracted one, like the sea anemone when disturbed by a rough touch" (p.51). She finds that this expansion, "that fat feeling", has physical benefits - it makes her breathe more deeply, refreshes her and prevents exhaustion.

 The pattern the leaves of a tree make against the sky prompts this response: "I had an aching desire to possess the pattern, somehow to make it mine." She thinks of drawing, yet doesn't have the time. Instead, she lets her awareness flow around the trees and their patterns "till their intricacies became part of my being" (ibid.).

At the zoo she finds "Joy in the animals and joy in the desirelessness of shapes" (p.18), and on another occasion, watching a little boy in a sailor suit dancing and skipping: "I thought what an awful thing is idealism when reality is so marvellous." (p.24) More often than not it is the simple things and nature she is drawn to. When writing down what she wants, one conclusion is "To give up to the creative chemistry and live among things that grow - a child, a garden and quietness." (p.27)

Apart from perceiving, she finds that doing things could also be altered by moving her awareness. When darning stockings, she notices that when she detaches and just lets her hand do the work, she derives pleasure from what she used to perceive as a chore. The realisation that a loose arm makes playing ping-pong easier leads her to relinquish the way most things are taught, with its emphasis on trying and effort. (for more on this, there is another wonderful book called The Art of Effortless Living)

Chapter 4 ends with questions that bother her, such as: If just looking was so satisfying, "why was I always striving to have things or to get things done?" (p.56)? Thus, Chapter 5 is titled "Searching for a Purpose".

To be continued...



  1. I learned a lot about Marion Milner in my graduate psychology classes. Her theories were brilliant! I hope you had a great New Year Marina :)

  2. Thank you for this beautiful review. I was looking for books to read for the weekend and thought 'Marina might have a suggestion' and I was right :) I also like the sound of the art of effortless living. I'll go to my local bookshop tomorrow to see which one of those I can find.

    I wish you a very happy, peaceful and creative new year x

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