When I am stressed I find the constant noise and activity of my 4 and 8 year old daughters irritating in the extreme. I find myself wishing I could teach them to be still. To listen to the wind, the rain and the birds. To see the patterns of sunlight and shade, and the spectacular colours of this year’s autumn leaves.
I am a teacher in a senior secondary school, and I see my 15, 16 and 17 year old kids display the same nervous energy. Whether listening to an enthralling talk, or working hard on a tricky problem, their bodies are constantly in motion, even when their minds are thoroughly engaged. Legs jiggle, heads bob, and they are constantly asking to be allowed to use headphones while they work.
As a teenager I was much the same. I was never so happy as when I was immersed in a book. Moments between things to do, or books to read, existed only to be stuffed with anything I could find – re-reading an old book, raiding the bookshelves for something – anything! – that I hadn’t already read, or playing with the dog. Stillness, far from being something I craved, seemed like something to be avoided at all costs.
Then someone taught me to meditate, and while I still find it incredibly difficult to switch off and truly let go, I have discovered the bliss that can be found in pure stillness. At first my mind roams around, ceaselessly picking at the fabric of my life, unravelling and re-ravelling all my stress and fears.
Writing is particularly good for short circuiting this phase, as I can dump all those whirling, chaotic thoughts out as words. Expelling toxic trauma from my system has always been a verbal act, for me, and writing is a powerful way of cleansing my system. Once I have vented all the hopes, fears, and traumas onto my keyboard, it is possible to set my brain free.
Given the (rare) opportunity, I sit beside our pond and watch the ripples in the water. I breathe deeply and allow myself to become aware of my inner state, instead of frenetically running away from it, which is the typical rhythm of my days. These days it is known as mindfulness, but I think of it more as self-awareness.
Tuning in to yourself is often regarded as wasted time. We fill our kids’ days with homework and extra-curricular activities, and then wonder why they lack the ability to be still. There are few gaps in our lives for unexpected visits or visitors, impromptu outings (perhaps to stomp in unexpected puddles), and breathing space of all sorts.
The technology that once promised to fill our lives with leisure time, by removing tedious chores from our lives, instead crams our existence with ceaseless demands for our attention. There is always something beeping, clanging or buzzing to notify us of an update to our world. It takes a huge effort of will to turn away from it all and give ourselves the breathing space that we don’t even realise we crave.
20 years ago my best friend regularly reminded me to breathe. I think perhaps she was prescient.