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How I’m building a quieter mind
Discovering the beauty of unplugging, tuning out, and going silent for a while
In my last post, I mentioned that I was about to leave normality and go into the woods for a week.
It struck me as this quaint and romantic notion: just me and my thoughts for hours upon hours at a time. I thought it might be an interesting way to stoke creativity — to get me out of my usual day-to-day, go quiet, and see what bubbled to the surface.
Fortunately, my siblings had the perfect place for me to undertake this little experiment. My sister owns some hidden-gem land in Tennessee (no, I’m not going to tell you where) and although I knew she wouldn’t be there when I was visiting, my brother (who takes care of the place) would be.
I don’t get a lot of responses to every post, but that last one got a bunch when I originally sent it out as an email. I think it’s because my “going off to be quiet” message struck a chord. Lots of you out there, just like me, seem eager to unplug for a while.
So: Stick around to the end of this, and I’ll tell you how I’m taking what I learned last week and baking it into my everyday life right here, back in the hurly-burly of everyday. You know — in case you want to do the same.
But first, I have a report to give. People have been asking how my week went, and the answer is: Awesomely. It went awesomely.
The place was entirely wooded, with a valley and a river. In addition, there turned out to be a 200-foot waterfall nearby. I felt extremely fortunate. I spent a lot of my time in what turned out to be perfect weather, just zoning out and watching the water.
Photos? you ask? Sure, I can give you some photos!
This is the deck I spent most of my outdoor sitting time on. I used my phone’s timer to get this rather dramatic and brooding shot so you could have the second-hand experience of watching me watch nature. This was about 7am, so it was chilly. Daytime highs were a lot more comfortable.
Here’s what I saw from my point of view as I sat on that deck:
And here’s what you’d see if you looked down:
I know, right? It was an astonishing thinking spot, full of grandeur and awe.
For two days, I just stared and thought and walked around. Thought and stared. Walked. Meditated and thought and stared. And walked and meditated and thought. Occasionally, I read. Things got really quiet inside.
Sometimes I free-wrote, thinking things out on paper. I spoke into my phone’s voice recorder when something came up that I wanted to remember. I took a small bag full of options around with me, including a book, a notepad, and a pen. I just kind of did what felt logical to do next.
I fell quickly into a regular routine. I’d get up early and head off to be alone and ideally create stuff, but in the afternoons I’d come back to help my brother build things and do farm chores. They’ve got horses and goats and chickens. The goats are like dogs. He walks them every day, and they surrounded us while we did construction. Ever try to build something while being hassled by goats? They keep standing on your supplies.
Like this. Hey, Tina! I’m working here!
The first project we undertook was creating elevated beds for said goats. (Later projects included rebuilding a fence and hauling 1.5 tons of rubber stall mats into place.)
Think “goat shelf” and you’ve got the idea. Fortunately our work was well received. From left to right, here’s Esther, Tina, and Reba appreciating the nearly-finished beds. Joni was either not impressed or camera shy. I’m not sure which. I asked and she just said, “MAAAAAAAAAAH!”
Work-wise (away from the goats and their desire to stand on things), it took me a few days to start putting ideas into tangible form. Before that, I did a lot of this:
I was trying to give myself space, not rushing it. Normally I don’t have quite so much room for idle thinking, but that’s what the week was about. So I really took my time. I broke creative thinking periods up with all sorts of non-digital, not-TV, non-internet, non-conversational breaks. I fell into a routine of doing yoga in the mornings and a lot of meditating and non-meditative sitting and staring. Every day, I kept one of several borrowed guitars nearby so I could noodle as I went.
Eventually, however, I got down to business and did a lot of this:
Using those Post-Its — along with generalized mulling and whole lot of thinking things out while pacing and hiking and sitting on the porch — I was able to put together a full story outline by the time I left. I came home with a whole new book, ready to be written.
Best work week ever.
Once I got home, though, I didn’t want to lose the magic I’d felt in Tennessee. At first I thought I was simply out of luck: the magic would depart because the woods and waterfall had departed.
But then I realized that nature wasn’t the key. Nature had only been a catalyst. Nature and the fact that I was away from home had made things easy because I had nothing else to do … but those things weren’t the secret.
I broke it down and realized that the secret — the magic — came from being alone, being quiet, and doing nothing … and I could do that anywhere.
So once I was home, I started getting up an hour earlier, before anyone else in my house was awake. It’s dark. At that hour, it’s quiet outside and even quieter inside. I pour myself a cup of coffee and just sit for a while in the mornings, doing nothing. I liked my yoga routine on my trip, so I started doing that before others woke up, too. By the time my house is awake, I’ve already established a peaceful, centered, and open-minded foundation upon which to build the day.
Still, I wanted more. I’m fortunate to be a full-time creative and can jet off to the park midday if I want to be alone and quiet, but anyone can do something similar on lunch break. Or at night. Or in any of the time currently spent playing games on a smartphone. We all have time. We’re just using it kind of stupidly.
I started to realize that I didn’t need to find more time in order to create thoughtful solitude. I could, instead, trade stupid time for quality time. Like how I started getting up earlier. I was just watching TV that I didn’t care about at night, so I reclaimed that time by going to bed earlier. I traded an hour of dumb TV at night for an hour’s worth of morning spent with myself. It became time with room to think. To become centered.
If you’re intrigued by all of this, I suggest you try it. Many people have art inside them, but can’t find the thinking time to actualize it — or to still their thoughts enough to hear the muse. I heard from some of you after my last email: people who used to create, but now can’t find the time (or the inner stillness) to do so. That sucks. Creators should create.
The good news is that you CAN find the time. And maybe you’re starting to realize you should.
The world can be a shit show. Personally, I’m opting out of most of it these days. I don’t watch the news. I refuse to talk to people about current events. We don’t need to know nearly as much about “what’s going on in the world” as we think we do.
Maybe this is a good place to borrow a passage from my favorite Austin singer/songwriter, Bob Schneider:
My phone keeps telling me all this information
Supposed to get me upset, fire my imagination
Of a world so dangerous and so damn wrong
But when I look outside my window, people just getting along.
I know, I know. I’m getting up on a soapbox. It just seems to me that there are two worlds out there: The one we THINK we’re supposed to obey because everyone’s always yelling at us to do so, and then there’s the real one.
In Bob’s lyrics above, the first three lines come from the bullshit, force-fed-media world (on all sides; other people’s shit is other people’s shit no matter what they represent), and the last line is what most of us would actually see if we’d just stop listening to everyone except for our own actual, personal experience.
(And I’m talking about our experience NOW, in the present moment, by the way… not some terrible future we’re pretending we know for sure. Because we don’t know it for sure. Nobody does.)
The important news will find you, rest assured. The positive changes you can make in the world will find you, too. You can be a good citizen without letting a nonstop deluge of information turn you into a worrying basket case who’s afraid to go outside for fear of The Next Terrible Big Thing.
(In fact, I’d actually argue you’re capable of being a much BETTER citizen if you face objective reality with a clear head rather than listening to avalanches of information that makes you jittery, scared, and angry at everyone out there with whom you disagree … because apparently “disagreeing” is a crime now.)
You CAN find time for solitude and quiet. You CAN find inner stillness. It’s so much better without all that noise.
How? Get rid of social media. Stop looking at everyone else’s Instagram and trying to be as fancy or well-dressed or beautiful as their filters make them and their world seem. Maybe if you’re bold, you’ll stop listening to, watching, and reading the news like I did years ago. Stop fretting the terrible things happening nowhere near you that you can’t do anything about, somehow convinced that distantly worrying about those things is the same as empathy, which is the same as solving the problem.
That chain of logic doesn’t make sense. If you want to help solve a problem, get up and go help solve it. Sitting at home feeling bad solves nothing. I just makes you incapable of helping anyone, ever.
Stop competing. Stop trying to impress. Stop fighting fights that ultimately don’t matter. Stop judging. Stop thinking you need to do everything. You don’t.
In my opinion, the best thing any of us can do for ourselves, the people we love, and the world as a whole is to maximally BE ourselves. Even if you want to change the world, you’ll do it better if you’re not freaked out and overstimulated.
You know the saying, right? It’s not “Work super hard and force solutions and fret all the time and rush from here to there constantly in order to affect the change you want to see in the world.” It’s actually, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” See how that works? It starts with simply BEING. Even Ghandi said, “My life is my message.”
That’s my opinion, anyway. If you agree, awesome. If you don’t, that’s cool, too. Either way I’m not losing any sleep over it.
Here’s to rediscovering ourselves, and our own minds.
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