Do you have a life that is filled with doing, getting things done, and taking care of business? And maybe even with a big dose of procrastination which involves spinning your wheels with web surfing, email, or other related filler? I know how this goes!
Our computers, cell phones, and iPads mean that we can be occupied every moment of the day with communicating, reading, and working. When we aren’t on our devices we are taking care of our families and friends, rushing here and there, or exercising. And finally, when we want to relax, we are watching television or reading a book. Our minds are similarly busy. Thinking, planning, putting ourselves down, judging, worrying, planning, worrying some more! Our minds are a reflection of our busy lives and vice-a-versa.
The starting point for reducing stress is to inject your day with just a bit of stillness. Physical stillness and mental stillness. It is also the starting point for turning down the volume on your inner critic, judging people less, being more productive, and doing your best thinking. I have known this for a long time, and you probably have too, but it wasn’t until last year that I really started to do something about it. In the spring I started adding some stillness to my days. Trust me, this was nothing dramatic! It was five minutes here, and fifteen minutes there. Sometimes I manage to even get twenty minutes in, which for me is pretty amazing.
I like to use the term “wordlessness” for this, which was coined by my coaching mentor Martha Beck, rather than meditation, as meditation has always seemed like something hard that I never managed to succeed with! The expression wordlessness for me simply means taking a moment to turn down my activity and the volume of my thoughts.
Having learned how to quieten my thoughts and sit still I find there are opportunities all around me for taking these short pauses in the action. Waiting in line at the bank or taking public transit, each day presents many small pauses that I can use for stillness. To the outside world I am just another person riding the bus. Inside, I am allowing my thoughts to quieten.
Here are two approaches to playing with wordlessness that I found really helpful when I started trying it out this year. Both are from Martha Beck’s book “Finding Your Way in a Wild New World.”
The first approach is called “How Do You Know You Have A Hand?” This one is a quick way of getting a moment of quiet in your mind, even if like me you are thinking all the time. Beck credits Eckhart Tolle, author of the Power of Now, with this way into wordlessness.
- Close your eyes and hold up one of your hands in the air so that it is not touching anything.
- Ask yourself: “Without opening my eyes, how can I know my hand exists?”
- Experience your attention going inside the body to answer the question, activating a non verbal part of the mind.
- Now hold up both hands (with eyes still closed) and feel the inside of both at the same time. Your awareness will slide out of left-hemisphere verbal thinking into both hemispheres – wordlessness. You won’t articulate this until it’s over, and that’s okay. The point is to feel it. (Finding, p.10)
Every time I try this I get a pleasant mental shift towards quiet.
The second approach is called the “Path of Beauty and Comfort.” I use this second approach of Martha’s or a modified version more often the technique above because it works well in a public setting.
- Right now, find something in your environment that is visually beautiful. Put your full attention on it.
- Without moving your eyes, now also listen to the sounds all around you, and then listen deeper, for the silence in which the sounds are taking place.
- Find a spot on your body that feels comfortable. It may be just one toe. While still watching beauty and listening to silence, fully feel that comfort in your toe.
- Breathe in slowly, feeling the sensation of your lungs filling with air. If you can smell anything fragrant or otherwise pleasant focus on the scent.
- Practice focusing on all these pleasurable things at once. Feel the calm that arises as this process drops you out of language. (Finding, p.17)
I have found this is a very effective way of getting to the stillness. In the summer I practiced it on my deck, at a cafe, sitting in my back yard, and last week on the sky train. I now don’t worry about finding something beautiful to focus on. Instead, I put my eyes into soft focus by activating my peripheral vision to the left and right. Then I turn my senses to a comfortable place on my body, listen to the sounds around me and the silence behind the sounds. When my thoughts start to get noisy and busy again I just soften my gaze again, sink back into the comfortable spot on my body, activate my listening and return to quiet.
It is okay when your thoughts intrude. Just notice your thoughts and then let them go. It can also help to add a word or phrase to run through your mind. I have used “stillness” and “peaceful mind” and just plain old “shushhhh” to help quieten my thoughts. Since starting playing with these approaches to wordlessness I have found I am now able to quieten my mind in a way that I never could before. It’s like I was living with a blaring television in my life and I finally learned how to turn down the volume. Even waiting in line is no longer an irritation, but a chance to grab a couple of moments of peace! I recently had a project stalled for over a week because I didn’t know how to tackle it. I sat outside for twenty minutes practicing wordlessness, then stood up and had my answer. The conscious mind is described by neuroscientists as a wind-up toy compared to the power of the unconscious mind. My hunch is that by deliberately quietening my left-brained thinking I provided space for the more powerful part of my brain to deliberate and the result was a solution that I was looking for.
Giving yourself even just 1 or 2 minutes of wordlessness to start with is enough. Ultimately it is great to get 15 to 20 minutes a day when you can. I just started with snippets of wordlessness and that was enough for me to experience a positive impact.