The other day, going through some notes in some old apps that I no longer use, I found this:
I am grateful that I can recognize more often that sometimes the best thing for me to do for my mind and body is to allow myself to do nothing, and allowing myself to be ok with that rather than focus on all of the things I’m not doing while I do nothing. — my journal notes from 01/16/2011
My discovery that I had made progress in this crucial lesson back in 2011 breaks my heart. I am still struggling with this exact same concept. To think that I have made no progress with this since then is depressing.
As I reflect back on the past several months, I wonder: will I ever learn?
Wasn’t I supposed to learn this lesson from the concussion recovery process?
It was clear to me at the time that this event came to me as a gift, so that I would learn the lesson before it was too late. I promised myself that I would not allow that experience to be for nothing. I would make changes.
Each time somebody asked me if I was feeling back to “normal,” I emphatically stated that a return to “normal” was not my agenda.
I was going for a “new normal” one in which I actively practiced the lesson that I learned about the importance of rest and doing nothing. I was going to make changes to how I run my businesses and my life. I was going to set boundaries. Scale back. Stop the endless cycle of running and doing.
I believed that this time, I had finally internalized it. This time, I had finally learned. This time, I would incorporate this into my life. This time, I would live it.
I was sincere.
Now, in the enveloping heat of late summer, the lesson I learned so painfully over the winter seems to have melted along with the snow that seemed, at one point, to have no end.
I got pulled back onto the treadmill at full speed. Trying to catch up on the time I missed, I have been working harder than ever. No days off. Little time to rest. I heard the loud call of the internal voice that admonished,
You did nothing for three months this year. You had your time to rest.
I shut down the smaller voice that tried, in vain, to protest:
That time was essential recovery. You still must make time to rest. Remember the lessons.
The louder voice roars:
There is no time to remember the lessons. Goals await. Clients need attention. Bills need to be paid.
This is our cultural conditioning:
Hustle. Don’t stop. Compete. Drive. Pursue. Mind over matter.
Like a good soldier, I complied. And these were my results:
Migraines. Exhaustion. Every muscle in my body hurting. The flu.
Accountability check: What happened to the “new normal”? What happened to prioritizing those things that are most important to me? What happened to the commitment I made to myself to write more, so I can share my struggles and experiences and lessons with others?
I spend so much of my time in transit, running from one appointment to the next. Even when I’m sitting still, I’m often running: shifting my attention from one project to the next, without any time in between to reflect or gather my thoughts. Even when I build margin into my days, it evaporates in the influx of demands that are often both urgent and important.
When I have succeeded in creating space, it invariably feels too short. Before I’ve had a chance to finish, I need to move on to something else. Client demands. Appointments. When I return to the project, I’ve forgotten where I was headed, or the emotion of the experience has passed and I can’t seem to get it back. New experiences trigger new thoughts. They get muddled together with the other thoughts. The result is another half-finished article in the digital repository of my life. Nothing gets finished.
Last week, in the middle of a busy day running from one appointment to the next, something within hit the threshold. The quiet voice inside me spoke up:
It’s time to stop running.
I listened. I carved out space. I sat down to rest and think and then write.
I was hardly in the chair for five minutes when I felt the urgent pull of all the other things I had to do. I couldn’t find focus. I couldn’t sit still. I started to get frustrated.
This is the paradox: Each day as I’m running around, I long for the time and space to sit still. To think. To write. To finish a coherent thought.
I yearn to get off the treadmill that keeps me in perpetual motion but doesn’t actually take me anywhere.
And the moment I give myself permission to stop, the moment I take that space, I seek out the demands that pull me back on the treadmill. Sometimes, I actively look for things that need to be done urgently, simply to escape the incredibly daunting task of sitting with my own thoughts.
I feel the tears as the inner voice asks:
What’s wrong with me that I can’t simply be in this moment and embrace it? Am I hopeless? Will I ever learn?
And then, I laughed.
Silly. Of course you want to run.
This thing that I most want, to have space to think and be present with myself, is also the thing that I most fear.
Most of us fear it.
To sit, alone with my thoughts and bring awareness to my experience, to examine myself honestly and face my emotions under the unforgiving glare of a bright light, without flinching, is scary shit.
Possibly the only thing more difficult is to distill that experience into words that can (I hope) offer guidance to others.
If this were easy, everyone would doing it. Instead, all of us look for ways to keep busy specifically to avoid this type of deep soul-examining work. We long for things to pull us away so that we can avoid the hard work of true self-examination. And we live in a world that is happy to meet those needs by offering us numerous avenues for distraction: social media. email. meetings. online courses. books. endless variety of fitness classes.
We are conditioned by our culture to embrace busy. Busy is the valid excuse for skipping emotional investigation and self-reflection. Some people escape with drugs and alcohol. Some escape in food. Others escape in work. Some of us escape in “healthy” activities like fitness. Whatever it takes to avoid the real work of digging deep.
It’s so much easier to run than it is to sit still and hold the space for our own experience.
And yet, I don’t want to run from this. I believe that my engagement with this process will allow me to offer insights and lessons that will help others. Maybe you. Maybe someone you know.
Suddenly, I realized that this entire process — sitting and holding space for myself, examining what comes up, distilling it into words — is simply a practice. And in the light of that illumination, I understood that my struggles are not a sign of regression; they are evidence of my commitment to the practice.
The practice is to sit and do nothing and to hold space for myself in that process.
The practice is to allow myself to be ok with sitting and doing nothing, in defiance of the voices within that command me to pursue the never-ending urgencies of life.
The practice is to allow myself the time and space I need to examine my experience and my emotions.
The practice is to sit and feel and peel back the layers.
Each time I sit to meditate or write or be alone with my thoughts, I am engaging in the practice.
My biggest challenge now is to accept that progress in this pursuit cannot be measured by traditional metrics.
Progress cannot measured by the amount of time I can sit in stillness or sit and write without feeling the pull of other demands of my life. Nor can it be measured in word count.
Progress in this pursuit lies in my willingness to commit to the practice.
Progress lies in my willingness to examine why I feel pulled to do those other things that call me: is it out of fear, or loyalty, or integrity, or desire or something else entirely?
Progress lies in my allowing the truth of my experience, whatever that truth might be.
Progress lies in my acceptance that this is challenging, and from my willingness to be uncomfortable with the process.
Progress lies in my commitment to typing the words, even if I don’t finish my thoughts and even if I never come back to them.
Progress lies in my willingness to hit the “publish,”
even especially if it the thoughts are unfinished and even especially if the grammar isn’t perfect and even especially it looks messy and even especially if it has no tags or images or links.
Progress lies in my continuing to write, even if nobody comments, and even if nobody comes here in the first place.
Progress lies, simply, in showing up.
So, I know I JUST said that progress lies in my willingness to write, even if nobody comments. But, your comments certainly encourage me to write more. So if you’re here, and if you’ve read through to the end, I would be grateful to know if any part of this resonated for you.