The Great Anesthetic of Modern Day Life

(Originally posted on The Huffington Post Blog.)

“The world is like an anesthetic… people are not going beyond the superficial to the meaning of life — they don’t even ask that question because they’re caught up in that anesthetizing process.” A Monk of Holy Trinity Abbey, Utah

I woke up this morning with an overwhelming feeling of being so distant from my own self. While in the midst of a frenzied work month, drained by piles of to-dos, and in an echo-chamber of my own mind; I seem to have lost touch with the precise thing that brought me here. I’m waking up for a city’s premiere of a documentary film I’ve been working on titled In Pursuit of Silence, and yet, I’ve managed to lose touch with my own silence, space, and solitude. I’ve become the precise paradox our film opens our eyes to; I’ve forgotten myself, my own way of being, and the natural spaces around me. Like an anesthetic fog just after surgery, I’ve been going through my days clouded by the demands of modern day life.

 

Anesthesia seems to be an ideal sentiment for describing the world we live in today. We’re consumed by our phones, computers, televisions, technology, work, and busyness itself. So much so that there’s nothing left of us for the solitude, space, and silence for which we were designed. Our days are so marked by modern day life’s measurements of likes, comments, and first place ribbons of who has the most emails — that we come to the day’s end without the depth of sensations we were created to have. Even our allegiance to the word busy seems to fill our mouths like a badge of honor. Our society tells us only a busy life is a successful and productive life, while research and studies continue to quietly tell us otherwise. There’s an undertone that busy is a title, a symbol we’re doing life right, a life worth living — but what if it’s precisely this busy that anesthetizes us from living a genuine life of meaning, a memorable day, and a life true to who we were made to be?

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates

Spreading ourselves too thin is now the law of the land; we insist we’re no longer good enough or doing enough for the people and world around us unless we’re giving more than what we have. And, as we watch our unique passions, desires, and hopes float away — we decide it’s time to take on even more. We cover our original design with layers of modern day life; we convince ourselves that losing ourselves is loving others more. And still, our purest and richest (in love and joy) selves come out in those moments when we’re true to who we are — listening to our creative urges in work and play, saying a hearty yes or empowering no to those around us, and being able to truly interact with our loved ones from a space of wholeness.

“Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” Hermann Hesse

For some of us, remaining busy is a way to feel sane — to keep us running from what is really going on, to avoid the truth of ourselves. But, what if the truth is actually an easier space to navigate? What if our true selves contain a space where we can see and feel more whole again — perhaps the real world we need to explore is not the world of to-dos and sensory overload but the vast interior world of ourselves. Maybe it’s time to turn off excerpts of our anesthetizing days so that we might feel again, recenter ourselves again, and re-engage with our natural equilibrium.

 

It seems that even when those small spaces peek up within our days, there is never enough time. Sleep is more important (it often is), my phone is more vibrant, those emails will just add up, and between all the day’s tasks the breaks to breathe are just that — how could anyone expect us to do more than breathe in such moments? And we know that we’re all so beautifully different in these realms: the ways in which we balance ourselves, the different rhythms that agree with us, and what makes sense for each of our lives. Thus, it’s all the more important to tune into our personal ways of being and trust that natural rhythm as we go about our days. The anesthetic fog will come again and again, because it is a part of modern day life — but there’s choice for us somewhere to see beyond that, through that, and let the fog lift.

“At the still point, there the dance is.” T.S. Eliot

When Doing Nothing is Doing Everything

As originally posted on Huffington Post and Patheos:

“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving.” Bell Hooks

This time, after jumping in my car, no maps were necessary as I navigated my way towards New Mellerary Abbey for the 10th time since 2011. Maybe I had gone enough times to know my way, maybe something beyond myself was helping to guide me, or maybe there was nothing mystical to the experience other than the way I chose to view it.

As soon as I arrived and settled in my room, that familiar piercing silence rang in my ears. I slowly meandered to the guest library to borrow 10 books: a handful of familiar authors, half of which I’d read, half I hadn’t. I skimmed through the pamphlet the monastery gives you upon your arrival – scanning for any new rules or suggestions for my time there, nothing new. I busied myself seeing if there might be wifi, navigating where I might have cell service and doing everything but precisely what I came there for.

This is nothing new. I go to get away from everything I chase as soon as I arrive because I live in a society that tells me I should never be alone. I live in a society that tells me I should always be connected, I should always be doing something, and even in being there for a retreat – I should have something to “show” for my time there. Alas, I know better. Every second of my aimless searching and grasping only reiterates to me just how ingrained these societal shoulds are. And, as we all know, when we finally come to terms with being in our solitude the guilt piles up of everything we should and could be doing.

“Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.” Pico Iyer

Solitude’s paradox comes in to play when we realize that, despite what others may say, silence and solitude are some of the most productive things we can give ourselves. Studies* demonstrate just how far we’ve gotten from true productivity (a relative statement as we all define productivity differently). Our fear of boredom (a root of creativity and imagination) has hypnotized us into screen hungry zombies. We wake up and check our emails, our social media, the news, and everything BUT checking in with ourselves; we’ve lost touch with what it means to know who we are. And in this convoluted state, we continue to reach for the quick fixes: the retreats or trips we can’t afford, the social media fast or cleanse, the “less screen time,” a cut back on work, and so on. Then as we emerge once again to be bombarded by society’s expectations alongside the needs of friends and family, we’re left confused. Almost as if an addict fresh off of rehab, our ensuing relapse only deepens us further into our modern day addiction.

“The inner fire is the most important thing humankind possesses.” Edith Sodergran

photoWe’re tired. And the cycle continues as we try to figure out how to marry what we feel is best to what the world seems to need and expect of us: in what situations do we bargain it all and dive in, what places do we let go for good, in what realms can we stick to a practice that allows us to truly and regularly hear ourselves? In the same breath, we’re so concerned that if we let go anywhere we’ll miss something – we won’t have enough money to pay rent, we’ll lose our friends, we can’t go to all the activities, we won’t make enough money to feel okay, or we’ll be off everyone’s radar because we’re no longer “involved enough.” Then, we once again come to the end of our days and moments struck with the reminder that we’ve lost touch with who we are, what we want, and what we’re doing.

“To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.” Oscar Wilde

We’ve become so busy that our days are mapped out to the second, our sleep is forced off rhythm by lack of time, our solitude is planned out to the minute, and we’re expecting ourselves to do it all. Another paradox to explore is that solitude was birthed in community; as we cannot know summer without winter, we lose sight of solitude when we isolate ourselves from community. Do the people around me truly know my needs in and out of solitude? How can we encourage one another to find those crevices of ourselves to love and explore more. How can we truly go away from commitments and people to come back more full of love, understanding, and compassion towards ourselves and others.

“The mystery of love is that it protects and respects the aloneness of the other and creates the free space where he can convert his loneliness into a solitude that can be shared.” Henri Nouwen

Once I finally settled into the rhythms of the monastery, I was able to let go of some of these things society has poisoned me with. I breathed into my time alone – allowing my thoughts, both negative and positive, to arise, listening to the silence, and grappling with those challenges and fears we all face in our silences. I was again reawakened and reopened to my vulnerabilities, my aimless clinging, and my continued awe for the mysteries of life.

I needed no map to navigate my way home, I needed no radio for company. The peace of knowing I at least spent half of my time basking in the solitude reassured me that I was in touch with the natural rhythms of my life, if only just a little. Perhaps there’s something different this time and I’m more open to listening to the solitude; allowing it to speak silence, truth, and rest into my life. Those moments I can finally say okay to letting go of the world in order to deepen my awareness. Those moments I reach for nothing and engage with who I really am. Those moments, I listen.

_____________________

Studies and articles on silence, boredom, solitude, etc. Many thanks to these authors for their inspiration and dedication to the topic:

Slowing Down to Listen

cropped-img_5260.jpg Just a couple of months ago, in November of 2014, I was on a work trip in New York City. Naturally, and true to New York City, my days were filled with travel, organizing, preparing, and little to no down time. While I was there, my friend Bill called and left a voicemail on a Sunday and I didn’t get around to checking it until the following Tuesday.

“This is Bill Rice calling, probably for the last time. Because I’m going to go into hospice where you actually die…” Bill said in his voicemail, “I hope to die on our lady’s immaculate conception, which is tomorrow. And so I’m saying goodbye to you. I love you and you’ve been a wonderful person in my life…”

My heart sank. Was I too busy to check this sooner, too rushed to consider someone who was sick, too occupied to think of someone other than myself when I sat down alone? I immediately panicked and in the midst of my workday called Bill’s cell phone — selfishly hoping and praying that he might answer and still be alive. When he didn’t answer I couldn’t even begin to rationalize my busyness as more important than a loving goodbye. I fretted over the fact that I didn’t slow down enough for something like this, someone so important to me, and remembered that maybe this was a reminder to slow down and listen. I tried calling again about an hour later and he answered. Our talk was understandably a mix of foggy and lucid conversation about our friendship, about what he meant to me over the past 2 years, and even about how he was feeling about dying. We ended that conversation with a love filled goodbye and the hopes of talking again. Bill was 82 and he had cancer; a cancer so severe he was told numerous times that he had months to live, only to survive those months by years. Finding Bill’s obituary was no surprise to me. It was Monday the 5th of January 2015, and I hadn’t heard anything for some time, so I looked for his name on the Internet. There it was, Bill Rice, died on December 17th, 2014. The surprise came while reading his obituary which was filled with facts of where he went to school, what he did for work, who he is survived by, and so on. To me, there was little reminder there of who Bill was as opposed to what Bill did. Bill Rice and I met in 2013 while we were both on retreat at a monastery in Utah. He was then an 80 year old man whose life consisted of volunteering and yearly retreats to this monastery and I was then a 29 year old woman whose life was in the midst of an undeniable turning point. Bill introduced himself to me when he noticed me amongst the empty pews at a prayer service one evening. What began that first day as friendly surface oriented banter about being on retreat turned into sharing beers on the front lawn of the church. I’ll never forget those plastic chairs we fetched and gathered on the lawn which was painted with fallen leaves. Nor will I forget our conversation that covered topics such as work, death and dying, doubt, questions, and spirituality. Gradually, Bill and I began writing letters to one another; he’d recount from time to time the amount of letters I’d sent him. He told me on numerous occasions that he considered himself a surrogate grandfather of sorts, which I gladly accepted as both of my grandfathers had died prior to my birth. IMG_7839 Bill had never married, had no children, and nearly became a monk in his earlier days. When we discussed why he chose to not become a monk, I recall him saying something to the effect of ‘I couldn’t handle the not talking.‘ This didn’t surprise me one bit as Bill could always be found talking to someone; He seemed to know no strangers. His dedication to Catholicism struck me, perhaps as much as my not being Catholic struck him – I received numerous letters from him with remarks about his not understanding why a woman like myself would travel to all these Catholic monasteries and not be Catholic. I recall a few precious letters when I was entrusted with some of the questions he had regarding this life, the mysteries we all face, and the questions we all dance with for a lifetime. I had no answers for him other than my support, my listening, and my willingness to accompany him in those questions and mysteries. Through our letters we continued to discuss these mysteries, sharing that perhaps part of our craving of the mysteries is that they remain unknown and that very paradox creates a greater awe. After I spoke with him from New York, Bill and I never had the chance to talk again on earth. True to Bill’s legacy, he came into my life with questions and openness, and he left me with an abundance of reminders. He reminded me the importance to staying in touch – even if it means sitting down and taking the time to write a hand-written letter (not everyone emails). He reminded me the importance of questioning things until the day I die – even if it means I’ll never know the answers (it’s comforting to be reminded we aren’t alone in our questions). He reminded me the importance of staying faithful – in friendships, in love, in spirituality. I knew I disagreed with Bill, on numerous things, but greater than that, I believe we knew one another’s hearts and intentions; this is friendship. Our disagreements didn’t deter or diminish my love for Bill – instead I was challenged by the idea of thinking of things in new ways, presenting thoughts in new capacities, and ultimately landing on the truth that our friendship and the love we shared was greater than disagreements. He reminded me that I’m never too busy to share a beer on an empty lawn outside a church. He reminded me to never be too busy for another person. He reminded me to slow down and listen. In the end, how would Bill want to be remembered? Probably a lot like the way his obituary read in terms of relationships and the people in his life. Although, in remaining true to Bill, I’m certain he’d scatter and mention friends, acquaintances, and those people he had passed by briefly that we’d typically assume to be forgettable. Bill never met a forgettable person. If you knew or were friends with Bill, you probably knew of at least one of his other friends or acquaintances. And perhaps that’s the most important lesson I take from this man: there are no forgettable people; there is no forgettable person. I only knew Bill for about 2 years and the culmination of his kindness, generosity, openness, and love, accounted for a lifetime with a surrogate grandfather. True to how our friendship began: cheers, Bill. IMG_8975 *Posted on my HuffPost Blog Here