On the fourth day I began to think I had gone down some sort of mental rabbit hole that I wasn’t sure I could retreat from. That statement likely comes across as unnecessarily melodramatic, but it remains the best way to describe the swift losing of what I thought was my mind, in order to replace it with what actually is my mind, or rather myself.
Let me explain.
As the month I spent without unnecessary technology use comes to a close, I realize that ultimately my month “away” gave me the opportunity to temporarily grasp a small piece of what it feels like to be me. A pinhole glimpse into my understanding of who I’ve become. Not nearly large or tangible enough to hold onto or fully comprehend. But just wide enough to intrigue my interest and teach me that this experiment was really just the beginning of some more complex journey to widen that pinhole, if just slightly. Draw out the blackened edges little by little. Turn what feels like a metaphorical lesson from a dream into something I can hold in my hands.
What I thought would be 31 days to reduce anxiety, social pressures, and redefine what activities are important to me turned into 31 days of exploring around in my own head. I thought it would be all reading, and working out and time with friends and family without constant pressure from emails, social media, TV, and texting. It was all of those great things, but I had to go through this experiment in order to stop missing the point:
The real opportunity to learn lies beyond the simple omission of all the world’s noises and ideas. What remains in their absence is room for myself, which is the most important discovery of all.
The clean slate I forgot I was even capable of being. The ability to let my mind wander however it wanted to, sometimes for however long it could, with no interruptions. The freedom from input, from distraction and attention-grabbing, from anything that is the opposite of solitude. Which I still define as simply being alone with your own thoughts, not necessarily physically alone.
In the beginning it was easy. I liken it to a food detox. You feel great for that first couple of days. It’s easy and simple. I can give it up, no problem. Life without it will be so much better. Healthier. It’s quiet here. No one to bother me. No TV or internet to distract me. Reading all day with a cup of tea feels like vacation. Until it’s your third day in a row, and all the errands that used to take days to complete take a few hours, total. And I’ve worked out, and meditated, and spent my allotted fifteen minutes texting clients back, and cleaned the house, and did all my laundry, and it’s somehow 10:30am.
I seriously began to wonder what I was going to do with 31 days as I anxiously awaited a work day. A clear direction, tasks. It’s that moment when you realize you are truly addicted to sugar and you cannot possibly go without it because it is literally in everything. How is it in everything?!
Time slowed down and I watched it happen. It began to creak by, painfully slowly.
I had to have that moment of panic to realize that what was happening to me was exactly what I asked for. For life to slow down long enough for me to think. On the fifth day I woke up, meditated and immediately thought to myself: For the first time in as long as I can remember, my brain is waking up. I feel like I’m thinking clearly.
For the last decade or longer I’ve felt like someone sitting in a room while twenty radios play just as many different stations at miscellaneous volumes. I picture myself strapped to a chair with something covering my eyes. While it’s difficult to focus on one song long enough to really hear it, if I manage to do so, it would only be for a second before another song would cut in. Twenty songs or commercials or news reports always competing. If something familiar comes on, maybe I could concentrate on it long enough to sing along, only to have that song end and another immediately begin. What this model promises is always the same, whether we enjoy one of the stations, whether we recognize a song or find value in one of the news reports, the ultimate result remains identical: The last thought I have time, space, or energy for is the one in my own head.
Everything is a response to something else.
I went from that room, to a room with nothing in it at all. Or at least that’s what it felt like at first. Just me inside an empty room with the loud sounds of my own breathing. No blindfold because there’s nothing to see. No chair because there’s no where to go. Once the initial panic starts to wear off I realized that I can put whatever I want inside that room. I was the one who put the radios in, and cranked them up, and refused to remove them. I was the one that blindfolded myself and refused to get out of the chair, and now I was the one that decided to shut it all off. Suddenly. And I can always leave the room. Or put things back into it.
That’s when things shifted from scary to interesting. Because holy shit; I can think.
On day six I wrote: “All I know is that right now I feel like the volume of my thoughts has gotten turned way up, so I’m trying really hard to listen.”
Although this post is rife with metaphor (apologies), there is truly no better way to explain this experience. My attention and concentration has improved, my dreams and meditations are more insightful and introspective, and I’m beginning to remember myself.
On day nineteen I continued: “As I think about how my mind feels woken up and truly focused for the first time in years, I wonder what that means for my brain – what dormant state has it been in? I wonder if anxiety isn’t always a response to something outside myself, but rather my own thoughts suppressed to the point that anxiety and depression manifest from their frustration and inability to break free – to get out.”
Which leads me to my next observation: I can feel.