Today the sky above London is, for a change, the very palest Monet blue, with gossamer fine clouds bleaching it even more. If you ignored the Victorian rooftops and the chilly four degrees, you might just be able to imagine a warm morning above Giverny on the Seine, where Monet lived and painted for 43 years.
He knew a thing or two about being inspired to look up. Yet it’s an art the 21st century seems to have lost.
The latest figures say we spent four hours 40 minutes every day staring at our mobile phones. Head bent, eyes down, texting banalities of criminal proportions: “Heyyyy’ “How are things”, “what’s up” “Can you get some milk?” Searching emojis. scanning emails, flicking through Instagram. A quick squiz at Net-a-Porter coat you’ll never be able to afford.
Some people are sucked down into this internet vortex for more than 10 hours a day. That’s 60lbs of pressure pulling on your neck, depending how close to your chest you hold your 12lb head.
It’s also the stance we adopt at the bleakest moments in our life. Depression and grief equals curling into a ball or weeping on someone’s shoulder. We want to appear small because we are sad, yet it’s also true we can feel sad because we’re making ourselves appear small.
Social psychologists call it embodied cognition. Which basically means our mind influences our body, but our body – especially our posture – greatly influences our mind too. If you are in any doubt, take 20 minutes out to watch Amy Cuddy’s entertaining 2012 Ted Talk about power posing that’s been viewed 45 million times and translated into 51 languages. It’s all about the potential of the expanded body.
In a similar vein, a Dutch behavioural scientist called Erik Paper conducted experiments at San Francisco University to prove that sitting in a collapsed position – think teen on a sofa with phone – makes it easier for negative thoughts to dominate. Sitting upright has the opposite, empowering effect.
His conclusion? “The increase of collapsed sitting and walking – from sitting in front of our computer to looking down at our smartphones – may very much have an effect on the rise of depression in recent years.” Which is why he used to get his students to stand up and ‘wiggle’ every half an hour.
For those not lucky enough to be in his class, he suggests hanging pictures of people we love slightly higher on a wall so you have to look up.
I prefer the strategy of a five year old, which is basically to look up at everything. Children, being so much closer to the ground, are endlessly fascinated with what’s happening above them.
When I was a child growing up in the Middle East, where the sun shone almost every day, I’d stare into it for so long it appeared to swivel like the hypnotic eyes of Kaa, the python in the film The Jungle Book. Bad for the eyes, I know, but the night sky was just as fascinating. Clear, cloudless and heavily strewn with stars, it had a purity I didn’t appreciate then, but have searched for throughout my adult life.
After a rubbish day – and quite frankly it’s been a very long winter – I have one ritual I look forward to every evening that is an antidote to tech-neck and never disappoints. A hot bath full of unguents Gill has bestowed upon me, away from the warring teens, lying back in the dark with my head skywards. (Our brilliant architect installed six skylights above our bathroom and I thank him for it every night).
Mostly I’m looking at grey light pollution but a clear sky offers the chance for some head-clearing stargazing.
From my watery vantage point, the biggest star above our bathroom is Capella, the sixth-brightest in the night sky. (I know this because I once downloaded the StarTracker app – honestly, highly recommended). And I only have to recall some Capella factoids to make my worries – and me – feel quite irrelevant.
It is not one star but two, both of the yellow giant variety, both ten times bigger than our sun and both a mere 42 light years away. Which means the light I’m seeing from it began its travels when I was still only 13, giving me a portal into the past that has my brain going “Wait, what?”, but which weirdly makes me happy.
During many years of travelling the world, looking up into the sky still offers the best experiences to pop into life’s memory box. Witnessing a crescent moon dissolve into dawn among the massive sand dunes of Namibia with the children 2016, trekking through Chile’s Atacama desert in the blue moonlight as a 90s backpacker, sleeping under the Southern Cross in outback Australia in the 80s and watching electric storms over the Gulf of Mexico every August is the stuff I dream of on my watching-the-shoes-shuffle commute.
Obviously you don’t have to travel that far to feel the power of looking up.
When I told my intuitive 17 year old what I was writing about, he got it immediately. (Granted he’s the family spiritual sage and even now I can hear him om-ing upstairs).
“Whenever I find myself in a downward chain of thoughts, I try to look up. Yeah, it breaks the cycle. Grounds you,’ said Guru George. He’s right. Chin raised, your shoulders naturally fall back, your chest opens, you feel stronger.
While I wrote this, it became quite overcast for a time, but the Monet blue sky is now back.
Excuse me while I stand up and say hello.
PS If it does snow as predicted soon, look up into a snowing sky. It’s totally magical.