A while ago, I came across an article titled, “The Three Day Productivity Retreat Everyone Needs.”
Ah, I thought, an article about how to take a time out when you’re feeling burnt out and need to “retreat” from your “productivity”–Great! I need that! You see, I am one of those compulsive doers that cannot just be. I’m always on the move, doing something or other, jumping in head first into one hare-brained scheme or another, with the result that I’m always exhausted . . . and scattered . . . and not especially purposeful. This is what I need, I thought. A little break from all this doing. A time to just be.
Turns out, a “Three Day Productivity Retreat” is a three-day period where all you do is be productive!
I blame the English language.
But it also got me thinking about what it would mean to actually take a break (retreat) from all this craziness.
So I did a little research. I asked around, “Hey, have you ever taken a personal retreat? A little time off to do absolutely nothing?”
You mean a sabbatical?
No not really. I mean like a time where you do absolutely nothing. A sabbatical (at least in the strictest sense) is still a time when you do something, produce something, just not the thing you do or produce ordinarily. For example, in academic circles, people/professors often take sabbaticals to work on their professional writing. It’s a time to think deeply and write and publish–activities that are usually subordinated during the crazy rush of the regular academic year. Some take sabbaticals to do research or to serve as visiting scholars at other universities. Then, of course, there are those who just take off and lie on the beach for a few months. Still, the idea is the same. You take time off from your regular work to do different work.
No, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about doing nothing. Like one of those Vipasana retreats where you are completely silent, and all you do is meditate (and eat soggy vegetables in broth).
I don’t know why, but there’s something oddly appealing about such a retreat (soggy vegetables notwithstanding). No sound, no stimulus, no communication, no relationship, no contribution. Just silence. I was going to say no thoughts, but I know that that’s impossible. At least for me.
So how to make this happen in my out-of-control over-stimulated life?
I have just returned from three weeks in my home town of Bombay, India. I was there to spend time with my mother, whom I haven’t seen for the better part of a year, and so the goal of the entire trip was to just be there with her.
No work. No hobbies. No socializing. No adventures. No experiments.
Just me and my mum. Hanging out.
When I first got there, this was easy. I was happy to see her; she was happy to see me; we had a lot to catch up on; the time flew by.
Then we ran out of words.
And I got antsy.
Surely I should be doing something. Making something. Clearing out my inbox. Anything.
But no. I did nothing. I just hung out.
Sometimes one of the three cute doggies in the house would bring me a toy to play fetch with. So I’d throw it in the air or across the room, and the silence would shatter with the excited barks of happy dogs (fake)-fighting each other for the privilege (the triumph) of bringing the thing back to me.
I’d throw. They’d fetch. And so we’d go until either they got too hot to play or I got too disgusted with the soggy toy to want to touch it again. And we’d all retreat. They to the cool floor behind the sofa, and me to my corner of the same.
There we’d sit.
They didn’t seem to be bothered much by the inactivity.
I, on the other hand, was antsy. What now? What next? What then?
But I persisted.
My days consisted of waking, eating, hanging with my mum, more eating, a little sleeping, an afternoon snack, waiting, a little cooperative crossword with my mum, much more eating, and finally more sleeping.
I kid you not.
How many days of this do you think I managed?
I did nothing for three full weeks.
What did I learn from all this nothing-doing?
It’s all in the head
My agitation, my resistance, my sense of helplessness all originated in my mind. Monkey Mind I think they call it in the Buddhist tradition, where thoughts race incessantly and seemingly involuntarily through the mind, so much so that the body is restless and unsettled as a result. My body seemed perfectly happy with all the sleeping and eating, but my mind would periodically prod it with the cruel, “Shouldn’t you be doing something?” And up it would get. Heart rate quickening. Breath shallowing. Fingers twitching of their own volition. And off we’d be to the Antsy Races!
But if I could just quiet the mind, tell it, “This is exactly what you should be doing/notdoing right now,” then the body would relax, too, and time would recede. That was interesting. I didn’t realize how closely time (or my sense of time) was related to doing something. When I relieved myself of doing, time disappeared. Sure, the sun still rose and set. I still ate and slept at mostly regular hours. But the notion of time as a commodity as something to have or to spend began to recede.
Our bodies were made for periods of rest
An interesting thing happened while I was there. My body was happy. I didn’t feel any tension in my back or shoulders. Not even in my jaw or the corners of my mouth. The furrows between my eyebrows disappeared. And my breathing returned to normal. I didn’t have a single episode of waking sleep apnea (this is my name for it)–you know, those moments when you don’t even know that you’re holding your breath and your autonomic nervous system kicks in with a, “Breathe woman!” Yeah, not even one of those. The skin on the backs of my hands plumped up (granted, that could have been due to the 300% humidity), my hair shone and bounced, and here’s the kicker: I ate with great abandon and did not gain a single pound! I kid you not.
How is this possible, you ask. Well it’s because your body (my body) actually had time to repair itself before the next wave of toxins and adrenaline and cortisol hit it. I have no scientific basis for making this claim, but it’s all I got. Either this or the fairy godmother came down and changed me from a pumpkin to a beautiful carriage.
You can be “full” when you are “empty”
Okay, so some of you non-new-agers (old-agers?) are going, “Peace out!” at this point, but hold on for just a minute. This is not a new idea, nor is it as whackadoo as it sounds. When I finally settled into notdoing, when I accepted that my days were fluid and open and unfettered, when I emptied myself of tasks and todo lists, I was able to invite in new ideas, to day dream.
Gosh! How long has it been since I just let my thoughts wander . . . pretty green leaves throwing dappled shadows on my outstretched legs . . . bare legs . . . ladybug settles on bare legs . . . she flies away . . . the pretty outside . . . bait and switch . . . must write a poem about that . . . about revenge. You get the drift. Yes drift. I was not holding on to anything–which freed me up to notice, to imagine, to put two completely incongruous things together–ladybirds and a poem (about revenge).
My brother, who is a writer and film maker, taught me that once: Put two completely unrelated items together–That’s creativity. So all of this to say that the emptying draws in the creativity, as a vacuum to matter. It makes us full–or full again in new and different ways. Full of ideas, full of beauty, and full of imagination.
When I headed off to India, I didn’t know I was embarking on a productivity retreat. As far as I knew, I was going to visit my mother, to help her, to be of service (that didn’t turn out quite as I imagined, but that’s a story for another blog!); instead, I found myself in the middle of my own personal productivity retreat. Maybe that’s what it took. The promise of “more doing” to get me to do nothing.
If you had told me, “Tina, take a few weeks off to do nothing,” I would have stared at you blankly. Then, I would have packed my laptop and portable charger (you never know when you might run out of battery!), uploaded several dozen business books to my kindle, generated a contact list of people I wanted to touch base with, made an agenda for each week I was there, then crossed off all the fluff and made a new one that fit “just a little bit more” in, packed a cross-stitch project in my carry-on to keep my hands busy on the long flight, and . . . .
I’d like to say that I am “reformed,” that “now I see,” but mostly I’m just woke. I have crust in the corners of my eyes, and my vision is still blurred from all that sleeping.
But today is a new day.