How ‘free’ is our free time?
By Joy Reichart, New Ventures West, guest contributor
Recently, as part of an organizational retreat—one that was centered on asking questions and being in a space of unknown, of emergence, of creation—we were invited to engage in a 24-hour media fast: no articles, books, TV, podcasts, social media. Essentially cleansing our minds and bodies of the incessant bombardment of other people’s words.
When the invitation was first issued I felt myself go white with terror. My panicked mind started preparing what I’d say the next day if we were asked to share what the fast had been like for us because there was no way I was going to do this. For one thing I was disturbed by what this meant for my automatic routines: a podcast during my walk; audiobook while doing the dishes; dinner in front of a movie; reading myself to sleep. How on earth would I fill my evening without these things?
And—why was I so desperate to ‘fill my time’ at all? The answer to that came pretty quickly: it had been a rough few months, and I knew there was a backlog of feelings that had piled up that, in the absence of distraction, I’d have no choice but to feel.
Ultimately I caved and went for it. And indeed, for the first time in many weeks I felt deeply—but a lot of it was joy, actually. A lot of it was ease. I found myself doing things like thanking each fork for its years of uncomplaining service as I rinsed and placed it on the drying rack. I pet my dogs without my phone in the other hand. My husband played me some music I hadn’t heard before as I fell asleep. Surprisingly quickly I came home to the place in myself that is in contact with the life in front of me.
Reclaiming time, space, and self
Yes, there were some challenging feelings, but they were processed pretty quickly in conversation and writing (both of which I had space for in the absence of my voluntary self-hypnosis). It’s something I’m always forgetting: how quickly difficult emotions, if I make space for them, move through—and what vastness of possibilities lies beyond them.
Speaking of vastness, I was in awe of how those 24 hours stretched. The two precious commodities I’m always chasing—time and space—were suddenly right there in spades. Though I don’t spend much time on social media, I nevertheless experienced in just one day the tyranny of media consumption in my life. How I live in service to these artificial stimuli. How I rush through early evening to make it to the ‘finish line’ of plunking down in front of the TV. How the ‘necessity’ of having something playing in my ears while walking or driving or doing chores usually interferes with trains of thought that would otherwise actually lead somewhere. How I’m constantly interrupting my own writing to respond to that email ding. Why?
Why do we distract ourselves?
Yes, there’s the resistance to feeling hard feelings. Related, I think, is that we’re looking for answers—specifically answers to the question, “how can I not feel these hard feelings anymore?” Especially now when there is so little out there that gives us hope, so little to feel but despair and powerlessness. Why wouldn’t we move toward seeking out answers anywhere they may be found—or, at the very least, stay busy to keep those feelings at bay?
After all, it takes way too long and involves far too much silence to wait for answers to arise in us. Especially when the world of human noise is offering up ‘answers’ all the time: news, opinions, soundbites, memes, updates, stories. We mistake this stuff for wisdom. (Granted, some of it is, but even if we only listen to dharma talks and read Rumi, we’re still taking ourselves away from our inner knowing: the way life speaks to and through each of us uniquely.) It’s far more efficient to seek out answers than to sit and wait as long as it takes for knowing to emerge from the churning rhythms of our bodies: the beat of a heart, the flow of blood, the breaths in and out.
Still, as practitioners of mindfulness know (and forget, and remember, and forget again), the only way that feelings will move through is if we nod to them. Welcome them, like our old pal Rumi invites in The Guest House. Give ourselves time to look straight at the world, unfiltered. To be with the truth as it is in the moment. Resist the temptation to be pulled in a million different directions by a million different ways of making sense of what never actually will make sense.
How to drop further in?
It took just 24 hours for me to realize that my ‘free’ isn’t especially free from anything, filled as it is with countless distractions. As we move into summer in the northern hemisphere, when many traditionally take time ostensibly ‘off,’ maybe you can get curious about this too.
For instance, what if the trip you have planned is about more than itineraries and Instagram posts? Or your staycation doesn’t involve tackling projects that you’ve been meaning to get to? What would it be to let some of the time stay empty? Can you sit on the beach or the dock without a book? Can you spend an hour simply taking in the surround, or talking to your family, or …?
Even more challenging, in these moments of quiet, can you let yourself fully feel the grief of all the world has lost, all the ways it has irreversibly changed? Can you sing or draw or write or dance these feelings? Create something of your own from them, rather than allowing the words, ideas, images of others to crowd out what you know is true? How might you clear a path for your own voice—one that cuts through all the others?
Self-reflection: how free is my free time?
Opportunities for such presence are available to us every day. It doesn’t have to be so drastic as a media fast (though I do recommend giving it a try, even for just half a day). Nor do we have to sequester our stillness into designated time away. Simply examining our automatic habits can aid us in uncovering opportunities to be with life as it is in every moment, and cultivating the capacity to respond.
To that end, here is a self-reflection practice to aid you in this exploration. You might take it up for a week or two - perhaps during one ‘regular’ week and again during a week ‘off.’ Check out how different (or not) your responses are in each scenario.
For one week, at the end of each day, reflect and journal on the following questions:
- What were one or two moments when I felt truly in contact with my life? How did that feel? What were the circumstances?
- What were one or two moments when I felt hurried, distracted, or on autopilot? How did that feel? What were the circumstances?
- What might I be avoiding by keeping myself distracted?
- What small thing could I shift or let go of to bring about more moments of genuine contact?
- What learnings might I bring from my current scenario (i.e. either workaday or vacation) into the other?
At the heart of Integral Coaching is the intention to cultivate deeper, more direct contact with life—always for the sake of supporting others and making a greater contribution. Foundations of Coaching, NVW’s introductory workshop, invites a compassionate, rigorous exploration of this. Mindful Leaders are welcome to take $100 off tuition using the coupon code MINDFULLEADER at checkout.