Quiet. Inner stillness. The soul yearns for it. Creative imagination runs dry without the rehydration of long, liquid moments of just being. The immune system quivers and weakens into auto-immune dysfunctions without the strength and balance offered by deep relaxation and recharging. Healers and meditators have always known that our human systems need to have respite from our intense, overly-busy lives, that we need it at all levels in order to thrive.
We live in an insanely complicated world with ultrahigh levels of activity, noise, and stimulation. It is a testament to the resilience of our minds and bodies that we’re not all completely nuts. (I would argue that we’re all a little bit nuts, each in our own way, but still able to function, mostly.) Regardless of our age, we’re often overloading our capacity. I hear about the schedules that kids have with school all day and constant activities after school and on weekends: Scouts, 4-H, dance lessons, sports of all kinds, volunteering, church activities, participation in theater, instrumental and choral performances with lessons, practice, and rehearsals. Somehow, homework and family time are layered in there somewhere. Families with infants live in a chronic state of sleep deprivation and tiredness. People throughout their careers are urged to give 150 percent at work and then network in their spare time to make those all-important connections. And it doesn’t quit. I frequently hear retired friends express amazement at how busy they are, “busier than when I was working!”
Only in a world such as ours would anyone have thought of speed dating, where a bunch of people pay $30 or more for an opportunity to play musical chairs and learn snippets about other people. My Cheeky Date is advertised as Speed Dating UK-style without explanation. Does that mean everyone has to speak in British accents? Or are they limited to dry, curt answers of 10 words or less? Participants rotate through the group every six minutes or so, for strange encounters of a brief kind, and everybody rates everybody to see if love is in the air.
Many of us who moved to Northern Minnesota did so to find a quieter place with fewer crowds, so maybe we’re a little bit saner than a lot of the world’s population, but don’t let that go to your head. We still are often in overdrive and don’t recognize what we’re doing to ourselves. I have heard from so many people that they don’t sleep well, and sales of sleep apnea kits are booming, but a good night’s sleep is essential for a strong immune system and a healthy mind and body.
Henry Emmons, MD and author of “The Chemistry of Joy,” explains that prior to the availability of electricity, our sleep cycles were tied to sunrise and sunset with people averaging over nine hours per night. By the mid-1900’s, the average was closer to eight hours, and today it’s down to seven or less, which he says is “disastrous for our brain chemistry” and leaves most Americans relatively sleep-deprived. We all are influenced by ultradian rhythms, cycles of fluctuating energy. For about 90 minutes, we are alert, productive, and creative. Then we flag a bit and may have brain fog with fatigue or even boredom or sadness. These cycles are the reason you may be exhausted but can’t sleep if your energy cycle is off kilter or because you shifted into the “perky” portion of your rhythms.
Andrew Weil, MD, and practitioner of natural and preventative medicine, cautions about losing sleep due to overstimulation from noise, a busy mind, TV and computer screens, or caffeine and drugs taken earlier in the day. Pets romping on the bed don’t help. He also warns against overuse of sedatives, which depress the function in the central nervous system, are all addictive, and suppress rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep during which dreams occur. He says that “dreaming is necessary for the health and well-being of the brain and mind; if you are not dreaming, you are not getting quality sleep, even though the quantity appears sufficient.” He recommends reading to divert a busy mind, having a good mattress, and a dark room. Taking synthetic melatonin, a non-addictive, nondepressant hormone that regulates the biological clock can even help you reset your ultradian rhythms.
However, I’m advocating for more than just a good night’s sleep, important as that is. I invite and challenge readers to consider the pace of your days and nights and see if you can unhook from that busyness and stimulation. Although I keep my house very quiet, I tend to have a very busy mind, which does not make for internal quiet. I’ll carry my breakfast out to my deck on a lovely morning and will automatically reach for a book to read, my journal, a pen, and the little notebook that has my interminable to-do lists, just in case I think of something to add while I eat. I laugh at my propensity but still resist leaving all that out of reach to just sit down to eat, enjoy the sweet air filled with birdsong, the hummingbirds coming for breakfast, and the antics of my cats.
Carl Honoré, author of “In Praise of Slowness,” notes that in our speedy modernity “even instant gratification takes too long” and praises those getting in touch with their “inner tortoise.” Slowing down and being more thoughtful does not mean being lazy and unproductive; often, quite the opposite. But too often, we are so acculturated to constant activity, we will feel uncomfortable functioning at less than full speed and uneasy with periods of silence and stillness.
It has been recognized that taking regular breaks are very important for focus, creativity, and productivity, a benefit often not available to employees in many workplaces. Even when we have that choice, when we’re feeling blocked or start to make silly mistakes, our inclination is often to knuckle down and work harder, but that’s the time to take a break for 15 or 20 minutes. Push away from the computer or project, take a walk, change your focus, and you may find fresh ideas with new inspiration when you return and more energy at the end of the day.
Many in our neck of the woods find deep quiet in that woods, a sanctuary of water and wind, trees and sun, dark sky illuminated by moon and stars. Peter Leschak writes beautifully about his experiences out in nature. He loves canoeing, taking daring rides down rapids, but he also reflects on the opportunity for introspection. In The Bear Guardian essay titled “No Stopping,” he says, “The music of the wilderness forms a psychic loop in your mind. The outside sounds draw your awareness inward. The quietness of the forest is natural habitat for the vibrations of thought.”