In these testing times, I’m embracing the art of navel-gazing

My favourite misunderstanding – which lasted an embarrassingly long time – was around the phrase navel-gazing. I knew what it meant, introspective at the cost of wider perspective, but for years I thought the literal translation was “staring at boats” (“naval” gazing).

It made sense. Boats are on the sea, and the sea is very spiritually moving, with its unknowable depths and changeable temper. Of course boat-staring would be considered myopic. Plus, navel-gazing is a phrase pejoratively hurled at artists, and I don’t know if anyone else has noticed but, historically, artists sure did paint a lot of boats.

This memory popped into my head recently, during a yoga class. “I want you to think about your belly button,” my YouTube teacher urged, “and imagine it connected to your spine. Focus your attention on it.”

Like many people, I have tried to find calm in these testing times through meditation and yoga. My hope is to break the waves of stress and sadness that, in lockdown 3, have threatened to flood my world. Pure escapism has played its part, too: reading books set in Russian farmhouses, staring at abstract paintings in reds and blues. “Perhaps,” I think, as I lie on my mat, “the people who created those were called navel-gazers”.

The yogis would have been, too: far from being a recent term for our modern self-obsession, navel-gazing refers to the ancient Greeks, who would stare at their belly buttons to meditate, as in many other cultures.

And so it is that I have found a new admiration – perhaps even envy – for the navel-gazers. I chase them through the pages they’ve written or the practices they’ve created. I want to swim in their self-indulgence as an escape, or learn to emulate them, steadying my breath whenever stress hits. Navel-gazing is a more selfless act than I thought. Especially in a city flat, so far away from the boats.