I need to find the quiet inside of me. I lost it. Slowly, at first, I didn’t even notice it slip away… and now I live in fear of the quiet.
It started when I was a teenager. I spent time on airplanes and buses, shuttling between boarding school and wherever I was going to meet my parents. I needed books to read, tapes for my Walkman, and music magazines. The idea of having nothing in front of my eyes petrified me. It provided me with a depth of knowledge, but it also became a refuge from my thoughts, and my feelings. I needed constant external stimulation.
Over time it became the computer, and then the smart phone, and my tablet. I had one of the first BlackBerries, and I would check it constantly. Now it is my iPhone, and social media, that has me enthralled. It is shocking how estranged I have become from my own thoughts, and how divorced from my feelings. I will check the device habitually… while waiting for an elevator, in the driver’s seat enduring a red light, while supervising the children… At first I was able to justify it. “Business! If you eat lunch, you are lunch!” and all of those late-90s platitudes. Now it’s about the business of art. But honestly, a lot of it is based on the feedback loop of social media, responding to a new Like or reading a comment left on a post.
It is in some ways an addiction, certainly a behavioral disorder. The question of whether my actions hurt myself or the ones I love must be answered affirmatively… mainly myself in this case. It provides refuge from feelings, and it stops me from engaging in thoughts that might fuel additional creativity. But unlike a Heroin addiction which can be stopped cold turkey, this technological abuse is more like an eating disorder. A bulimic can’t just quit food… so new behavior patterns must be formed. Because the truth is that social media and the gadgets that enable this consumption are also a great source of creative inspiration, a wonderful way of staying in touch with friends, family, and fans, while also providing a platform for showing one’s work.
So why do I want my free brain cycles back? Because that is where my creativity happens… I have ideas. Every once in a while I have big ideas. But most of the time, I am in a project, and I rethink and question and skewer some smaller aspect of what I’m working on. It’s this creative mastication that I seem to have forfeited. I need those cycles. And it’s not always about creative output, often it is the ancillary ideas that fall by the wayside. Yes, the clearest moments are those trance-induced endorphin periods when I get into a good cardio-groove while swimming, biking or running on the treadmill. I do cardio mainly to think.
But I need those little moments back. They’re mine.
So I am reclaiming them. And small steps are needed.
I found a post today by a blogger called David Cain and his site raptitude. He’s been anointed by some of his readers as a sort of self-help guru, but he is the most down-to-earth guy I have seen in this field. Cain recommends clarity of mind, and although he insists there is nothing meditative about his process, it actually gets close to that… and that’s a good thing. I will paraphrase a post of his, because he is a tea drinker… and although I enjoy tea, my life revolves around coffee. I need a quick cup in the morning, but my favorite coffee moments are in the studio mid-day, or in the afternoon right after a cat-nap and before my second wave of creative effort. Cain ultimately posted it as advice… So I will share his knowledge, but my readers expect it in my voice.
How to make a cup of coffee:
First, slow down… like you’ve just turned off the highway into a quiet neighborhood. Normal rat-race speed is unsuitable for what is about to happen. Hurrying through the process of relaxing defeats its purpose.
This experience is all about decelerating. Take an extra breath, it will focus you.
Take out your tools. The kettle. Your favorite cup. The clean French Press from the drip rack.
Your supplies — the consumables — will be some of nature’s simplest creations: water, coffee beans, and milk.
Choose your coffee. A good Viennese roast is my favorite, but there’s Blue Hawaiian that I’ve loved, good Columbian, or a great Espresso. I keep different kinds in the fridge at home. One of the most important parts of this ritual for me is grinding the beans, but your coffee may already be ground.
Run water into the kettle, feeling its growing weight, and take a moment to smile at your fortune if you did not have to leave the house to do so.
Turn on the heat. Put your ground coffee beans into the French Press.
… and here comes the hard part! You will now confront one of modern society’s ever-present dangers, which is the risk of distraction we face whenever nothing interesting happens for a few minutes. Your long-formed habits will suggest something, maybe slipping your smartphone out, maybe leaning over the computer chair to surf Facebook, maybe straightening something on the counter. Worst of all, you may start talking to yourself in your head.
Stay where you are. You’re making coffee. It’s tempting to think of the next two minutes of kettle-heating time as something in the way, something you want to get to the end of, like an unmemorable stretch of parking lot you have to cross to get from your car to your destination.
Your impulse might be to fill the empty time. Opt instead to do something simple and self-contained, looking out the window, or studying the light around the kitchen. If you’re game, just stand beside the stove. Let time just hang there, without making you feel like you should be somewhere else.
Clear your mind.
Whatever you end up doing for that two minutes, if you stay with it, your simple experience of standing or looking will seem to grow in intensity, until your whole world begins whistling and rattling.
Don’t rush here. A boiling kettle is not a crisis. To make sure you’re not reacting, watch it exhale steam for a few seconds. Observe how the world stays together. Let your pulse return to normal, then take it off.
Pour your water into the French Press. Set the kettle aside. Heat off.
Place the plunger top over the French Press, and allow yourself to look forward to pushing that plunger down. Take your cup, and some milk, and the Press over to your favorite seat. NOT the one at your desk. You’ll need a surface to set your coffee down on, within arm’s reach of your chair. Put the cup down before you even think about sitting down.
Then sit, and rest your bones. Take a big, unpretentious breath, and as you let it go watch the remaining tension go with it. You are looking for the feeling of sitting at the center of the universe. You might as well be.
Eventually you’ll notice a curl of steam or a whiff of coffee and discover that your press is ready. When you are also ready, push the plunger down, and watch the darkness swirl. Pour yourself some coffee, inhale the aroma, add some milk, pick up your cup… and drink some.
Give yourself as much time as you need. Really, give the time to yourself, as a present. The most important part is to agree that everything in your world, except for sitting with your drink, will be dealt with later. Your gift is a complete — though short — subjugation of the rest of your life. For fifteen minutes, make the rest of your world subordinate to this experience.
And if you’re lucky, your mind will open.
Think about the image you want to create… or the story you’re writing, the characters, the setting, the world you’re creating.
The thought may make a part of you nervous at first, deferring the remainder of whole universe, everything dear to you, until you finish your coffee. Whatever normally fetters your psyche during the day — career plans, family issues, budget constraints, website updates, ambitions for revolutionary art or a spotless house — all of it can be picked up again and fretted about once your coffee is finished, if you still think it’s worthwhile.
Obviously, leave your phone where it is — even if it chimes or quivers while you sit. Ignore it. It’s just a sound, it doesn’t mean anything else right now. If your friend “Likes” your Thoreau quote, or somebody comments on your link, you will learn this later, in a different moment. If the mind wanders, bring it back to your bones.
It’s important to note that this is not an uptight meditation ritual. You don’t need to concentrate, just put your attention on what you’re doing. If it wanders, bring it back. This is all physical, and there are no spiritual pretentions, no ancient wisdom, no asceticism or self-mortification. Nothing here is hard. You don’t have to keep your spine upright like a stack of coins. You don’t have to keep your shoulders back. You shouldn’t look constipated to an outside observer. The thoughts will come, or you will simply have given some time to yourself.
So… small steps. Remove social media apps from smart phone. Log off every time you leave such a site, just to add a re-entry hurdle. Drive with the radio off. Clear the mind. Do cardio. And allow your mind to chat with you…
That’s why people are always talking on their phones, or looking at their phones, it’s because they don’t want to be alone with their thoughts.
– Martin Amis