Yesterday morning I sat for a long time on a hillside, staring at the Mediterranean Sea a few miles away.
It was a gorgeous vista — the water past the hills was sparkly blue like a sapphire and a few bright cotton clouds punctuated the edgeless sky -– but there wasn’t anything especially interesting happening out there.
It was merely a convenient place to direct my gaze while getting lost in my thoughts. Getting lost in a beautiful picture helped me to look inward.
I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, looking inward. After a very difficult autumn, in January I removed myself from much of the reality of everyday life by sequestering in small-town France.
This has been my way of working to identify my purpose, of refocusing, of hitting the reset button, of filtering out the static, of finding myself — there are countless relevant clichés.
The time has been valuable and I’ve learned new things about myself. I’ve thought about what’s important and I’ve written a lot. I got what I wanted out of these months.
But just as I heard myself giving thanks for the gift of time, it struck me as sad that having time to think is such a rare pleasure.
Why did it take a personal crisis and a temporary move to the other side of the world to get me to a place –- geographically and emotionally -– where I could do little but think?
Back at home, in my so-called normal life, there’s a routine of work, traffic, sleeping, shopping, cooking, eating and so on.
I wake up and go pretty much on autopilot for a day, and then the day is finished, and then it repeats.
It’s very easy for life to become a treadmill that doesn’t turn off, and as you know if you’ve spent any time in a gym, getting off a moving treadmill isn’t easy. It’s dangerous, even.
The inertia of life can draw us subtly into behaviors that might allow us to feel productive, but I wonder what is the cost of ignoring our inner needs, our inner selves.
Henry David Thoreau said he “did not wish to live what was not life,” and that was part of what led him to spend time by himself in his little cabin in the woods.
Sure, Walden was only a mile or so from Concord and he went into town almost every day, but just the part-time seclusion and the literal change of scenery was what worked for him.
I understand now more than ever the immense popularity of yoga and people’s increasing exploration of spirituality. These are just a couple of the countless avenues people take to achieve mental well-being.
Even the U.S. Marine Corps has joined the movement with a program called “Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training“, or M-Fit.
It’s a set of meditation-based exercises that, the thinking goes, enhance troops’ performance while reducing stress.
The abuse of illicit drugs, for that matter, is also a means of escaping from reality. On the whole it seems clear that we’re desperate to find a way to some other place.
The author Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times last year about what he called “The Busy Trap.”
“Busyness,” he wrote, “serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness.” I agree with him.
Just as I believe we need time for ourselves, I know that for many of us it’s such an unnatural state that it can elicit fear.
We churn ourselves into a fantasy of busy-equals-good and idle-equals-bad.
In a week I’ll leave my French reverie and go home, back to my big city, bills, traffic and a job –- in other words, real life. But I’m determined that it be different.
Now that I know the deep value of time for introspection, I’m determined to make time for myself.
If it means driving up to the mountains and hiking alone, fine. If it means taking a class to learn meditation techniques, so be it.
Maybe it will mean adding “alone time” as a calendar item. Whatever it takes, I owe it to myself to keep at it.
Image credit: VinylLettering on Etsy