It's August. It's hot. Many of us are getting ready to go or are already on vacation. It is that time of year. We "check out" for at least a few days, maybe a week, or if you're a European, a whole month. That is as it should be. Time for rejuvenation, relaxation and the big "R"--REST--is essential if we are to maintain some semblance of balance in this wired, weary world.
But, as I recently learned the hard way, something major has changed in the way we experience vacations: we just don't do "down time" anymore, not really. Let's be honest. When you head out to the beach or up country on that longed for road trip, do you really "turn off" the world? Do you leave your laptop behind? Do you stop checking your email or logging on to Facebook? I doubt it.
The truth is that with our newly acquired ability to "stay connected" via small, nimble gadgets like the iPhone and Blackberry, it becomes easier to think we have left the world of work behind, all the while constantly checking in (and feeling guilty if we don't). Now, lest you think coaches and psychologists are immune to the techno-addictive ways of today's wired world, I want to dispel this notion point blank by sharing my own tale of woe.
Last week, I "escaped" to the breezy beaches of South Florida for a mini-vacation. My plan was simple: I would relax, hang out with friends on the beach, and read a couple of novels that have been piling up for months. My goal was to leave my laptop at home, not check my email, not even watch TV -- at least for a few days. It's called R & R. Or so I thought.
All was going swimmingly until one afternoon on the beach, while dozing in the bright afternoon sun, my friend notified me that everyone was packing up umbrellas, chairs and towels and quickly retreating off the beach. Turns out there was a dicey swirl of black clouds heading our way. Before we knew it, hard, driving rain poured out of the sky, drenching me and all my possessions. The deluge lasted all of about 15 minutes, but the damage was done: everything and I mean EVERYTHING was soaked, including my iPhone. It was dead. I pushed every button and flicked every switch and even hung it out to dry in a bag of rice (see Google: "wet iPhone remedy") for three days. All to no avail, she was a goner.
Now losing my iPhone wasn't life-threatening. BUT, it did send me into an emotional tailspin: how could I check my email? What would happen if a client needed me? How could I live without being able to send/receive text messages? OMG! That's when it hit me: I hadn't "escaped" from the world of clients, or family or anyone. My vacation was in some ways a complete ruse. I was, until the nature Gods abruptly disconnected me, still wired to work, wired to the internet, wired to respond. Down time? Intermittent at best.
So, in response to nature's wake-up call and the recognition that I was fooling myself into believing that I had turned off the world, I have decided to enumerate a list--for my next trip--of ways to truly DO NOTHING. (FYI: meditation practice doesn't count. For me, meditating is an active discipline involving focus, attention and breathing; it stacks up very high on my "to-do" list). Here are six that I've come up with:
You don't need to have a regular meditation practice to experience the shift in energy that comes from altering your daily habits around talking vs. listening. Just try eating a meal, from beginning to end, in silence. I remember once during a day-long meditation retreat that the most challenging part was eating without speaking. This practice forced us to savor the act of eating--the flavors, the textures, the chewing and swallowing of food. It slowed everything down to a crawl. It was excruciating, and a revelation.
This one may be a bit of a conceit, but the idea is to SHIFT gears and experience the empty space that comes from omitting, at least temporarily, a daily routine. I recommend skipping dinner a few times during your holidays. Stay on the beach and nap into the evening. Curl up in a hammock and let the evening descend without following the urge to cook, to shop, to dine--just let it go. Of course, if you have little ones to feed or a hungry dog in tow, you may need to make arrangements to get away with this one, but it is worth it. You may be surprised by how much less food you really need and how enlightening it is to alter a habituated pattern.
I don't know why I put off giving myself this luxury for so many years. I think they call it being cheap. What a mistake! Ever since I finally splurged on a full hour while nestled on a cliff overlooking the blue Pacific, I've made a massage treatment a staple of every vacation, whether at a rustic retreat in the Berkshires or on a cruise off the coast of Alaska. Giving yourself the gift of a full body massage, where you literally DO NOTHING (and don't converse with the masseur/masseuse), is a supreme treat for your body, your mind and your soul.
This one may appear to be a no-brainer, yet my observation is that most of us take to swimming, whether in the ocean or a pool, as one more chance to exercise: We dive, do laps or body surf. All of these are great of course, but again--breaking the pattern of "doing" is what counts. Laze on a float in a pool, or in a tube on a lake, stare at the sky and let your imagination play with the cloud formations. You may just find yourself taken back to those idyllic moments in childhood when there was literally nothing to do... and plenty of time to do it in.
I love to hike. I love to explore caves and meander through the woods. I love to ascend rocky outcroppings through thickets of bramble until I suddenly break out on a mountain top with a 360 degree view. Walking in nature is a wonderful way to re-ground and center. But it is still a whole lot of DOING. So here's my suggestion: Find a spot in a cave or on a ridge with a view, and just sit. Just breathe. Feel your feet on the ground. Listen to the wind, the birds and the trees. Don't try to "meditate," just be. AND... don't check your phone for text messages.
Sleeping during the day is one of life's most guilty pleasures. Yet, if there is one thing that most Americans are starved of these days, it is SLEEP. Napping is a no-brainer when we're kids, yet when we become all adult and responsible, suddenly life becomes so SERIOUS, and well, napping is taboo. NOT. I say start on the beach, move to a hammock, and by the end of your holiday, curl up in bed and sleep away an entire afternoon. Your body will thank you. Your kids may demand compensation for your absence (worth it!) but you never know what gifts might appear in your day-time dreams!
Okay, there you have it: My recipe for re-inserting meaning to the words "down time." Let me know what you think. I shared this article with a client yesterday and he literally freaked out at the thought of doing nothing. He told me that he can barely function at work unless he has at least six "windows" open on his computer and can switch back and forth between them constantly. Yikes. It is more crucial than ever that we turn off those ubiquitous gadgets once in a while. We all need to remember what we knew intuitively as kids: DOING NOTHING is one of life's precious gifts. We need to revel in it more often.
Happy August! Dr. J
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