The majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.
It didn’t matter if the subjects engaged in the contemplative exercise at home or in the laboratory, or if they were given suggestions of what to think about, like a coming vacation; they just didn’t like being in their own heads.
One of my favourite theologians, Louis C.K., says it this way:
You need to build an ability to be yourself and not be doing something
About 6 years ago, I took a 7 day excursion to the Salar de Uyuni. It’s a salt desert located in Bolivia and for the excursion you’re shoved into a Land Cruiser with 7 strangers and you drive about 40 hours on salt to arrive at, you guessed it, more salt! You also get to see some flamingos, and eventually a volcano. It’s a beautiful, difficult, tiring, journey and it usually involves some kind of food poisoning.
Getting to the Salar was the first challenge. I got on a bus in the city of La Paz, and we drove 11 hours south to the town of Uyuni. The ride was so bumpy and so long, that my iPod, which had a moveable hard drive in it, died about 1 hour into the trip from moving so much. That made the 11 hours feel a lot longer. I had to watch poorly dubbed Spanish movies on the bus instead of listen to my carefully curated playlists for the ride. It’s also incredibly difficult to fall asleep while you feel like you’re inside of a dryer set on low heat for an endless cycle.
Once you arrive at Uyuni, the top of the salt desert, you begin your journey through the desert. Not only are you now about 11 hours from the closest hospital, you are also now tasked with getting used to being at an elevation of 12,000 feet above sea level. I was getting dizzy just walking around, and many people faint just from walking.
I found my way to my designated Land Cruiser, met the 7 people and the driver who I’d have to become BFFs with over the next week, and we started driving through the desert. The driver excitedly put on his Abba cassette into the tape deck, and pulled out a large bottle of beer to quench his thirst. No GPS, no map, and barely sober, I asked him how he was able to know where he was going.
He looked at me like I was crazy and said “you just go that way”.
I can barely drive in a city without my Google Maps app telling me what to do every 30 seconds.
Throughout the trip, we would arrive at certain destinations of interest. We’d arrive at a lake, or an unusual island, and get dropped off to explore the area. The way this generally worked was that everyone would get out of the vehicle with a camera in hand, and take as many pictures as possible for as long as we were there.
At first this was exciting.
Wow – my friends are going to be so jealous of these pictures.
Many people on the trip were mostly concerned about capturing the moments, not experiencing them – including myself.
Some would go to great lengths to take the perfect picture, with elaborate camera gear and props. Often they would take so long composing these shots that they would miss out on exploring the whole area.
It made me think about how our consumer culture has shaped and changed what was once a sort of spiritual pilgrimage through the desert into just another Facebook photo album that you want to tag and upload as soon as you’re back on WiFi.
I wanted to rebel against this so I started to put my camera down more often – and even left it in the vehicle so I would have more time to take in the beautiful scenery and truly experience the desert instead of consume it.
Being in the wilderness is daunting. You’re exposed to a kind of emptiness that you don’t find in the city or the suburbs. There’s a silence that made me uncomfortable and I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it.
I think I was uncomfortable because I hide from it as much as possible when I can. I’m reading through Flipboard in the bathroom, checking my Twitter at the line-up or going through my WordPress Reader in bed.
The question I have is – when I do those things… what am I missing?
How many times do we go to concerts and spend more time taking pictures of the band than we do listening to the music?
How often are we in museums and we’re more concerned with getting through all the exhibits than we are about learning from them?
There’s a danger in consuming our experiences instead of letting our experiences shape us.
So I’m making an effort to live more in the silence. To let it make me uncomfortable, to urge me to disconnect, and to enjoy the nuances and simplicities of life that are there every day, but that I can’t always see.
I have spent a lot of my life pursuing knowledge. From the early years of struggling learning how to speak in two languages and knowing which one was appropriate at what time – to studying music theory in University and having to memorize note intervals – learning was my life.
From time to time I was even tested on my knowledge – how well did I actually learn? These tests would surely measure my success.
I have spent a lot of time learning to play badminton, learning how to run, learning to play new instruments, and learning how to be a good husband.
One of the problems I encounter over and again is that I have to un-learn just as much as I have to learn.
Un-learning, to me, is the process of getting rid of things you’ve been taught were “the right way to do things” or the “right answers” to your questions, to make room for new ideas.
Without getting rid of these bad habits, ideas, doctrines, and processes, it’s almost impossible to learn.
When I got married – I had to un-learn how to be single. I was great at not doing dishes, eating whenever I felt like it, and never making the bed. (My wife would probably say I’m still great at that) – but the things I learned how to do so well didn’t suit me very well anymore.
It’s hard to un-learn.
I’ve had to un-learn religion. I went to a school that taught me that science was bad, that God hated certain people, to be scared of everything, and that dinosaurs co-existed with people.
It takes time to un-learn.
I’ve had to un-learn how public transportation works. I grew up in a country where people don’t wear watches, where buses come and go as they please, and where siestas are part of every day life. I live in a country where being 5 minutes late is very rude, and if you’re napping in the middle of the day you’re lazy.
It takes patience to un-learn.
It’s hard to give up things you hold on to, especially the things you thought were right for so long. It’s hard to apologize to those you hurt with your wrong ideas.
It takes guts to change your mind about your opinions and to let your friends know where you’re at. I’ve lost jobs for things I’ve un-learned, I’ve lost friends, but most importantly I’ve gained an open mind.
I’ve learned that being wrong is ok.
I’ve learned that admitting that I don’t know everything is more powerful that knowing it all.
I’ve learned that the most important thing is to keep learning (and un-learning).
Some cultures don’t practice or have birthdays, some religions ban birthdays, some people love them, others’ hate them.
I have never been a huge fan of my own birthdays, mostly because I don’t like having forced attention on myself.
Turning 30 is kind of interesting, though – and the age of 30 brings with it some of its own baggage.
Milestone birthdays like hitting 18, 20, 30, 40, etc, have some expectations behind them and lend themselves to reflecting a lot more on what you’ve done with your life. I didn’t think twice about turning 29, and frankly forgot I was 29 for most of the year. I think I actually told someone I was 26 when I was asked.
I think for a majority of our forming years, we have very neat and orderly categories and clear expectations of what we should be doing. You go to pre-school, elementary school, high school, university, get a job. There’s a linear sort of progression there. That’s good, most of the time. We don’t all fit into those neat categories but if you do, you get herded into the next stage without too many problems.
My linear development looks pretty standard:
Go to school > go to more school > go to university > get a job > get another job > get married > buy a house > have goats*
*no kids yet, just goats.
Of course other things were happening during that time, but these life events help us frame our history and give meaning to what we do. Going to school in itself is not that important in my opinion, what you do while you are in school is far more crucial to your development.
Turning 30 is where things get a bit nebulous for me. Where did my easy linear plan go? I checked off my list and now what? Kids? More goats? Should our goats have kids??
When you turn 30 you also get a lot of existential questions popping up like “What have you done with your life?” and you start thinking a lot about the choices you’ve made and how you somehow ended up where you are.
As I was reflecting on all this, I realized that the culture I am in really values accomplishments over character. When I start thinking of “accomplishments” there is a tendency to lean toward possessions, equity, status, happiness, job titles, influence, and power. I’m not so sure those are good indicators.
Some of the most accomplished people I have ever met are in poverty, have very ordinary jobs, have no power, no status, and very little possessions.
So what do you measure? What metrics do you use to measure where you are and “examine” your life?
Here are some questions I made for myself to examine my life:
1. Are you doing something meaningful with your everyday life?
2. Are you loving and encouraging those around you in meaningful ways?
3. Are you contributing to your community and helping those around you?
4. Are you continuing to learn every day and challenging yourself to grow?
5. Are you influencing those around you in meaningful ways?
I have been 30 for about a week now, so I asked myself these questions again today. I can both see where I’ve grown in each area and at the same time see all of my inadequacies in each one of them.
Here’s to another 30 years to get better at each one.