Sometime in the dark midwinter I was scrubbing at a blue-black stain on my living room carpet for ten minutes before I realised it was actually a shadow. I wanted to cry. It was past my bed-time and my nervous system was crackling with stress. I’d had about eight cups of coffee since 7am that morning. I was angry about everything. Until that moment I’d never known what it was to hate a shadow for having the cheek to exist in my space. MY space.
Learning to rest is surprisingly difficult. As a child and teenager I could have won medals for relaxing, if the world were only enlightened enough to have awarded such prizes. But somewhere along the line, around about my late twenties, life was too full of things to do, and relaxing seemed like a mug’s game. My standards had rocketed ludicrously high – and therefore I was a permanent failure at everything, in my head – and when I tried meditation it made me want to scream in frustration. What was the end goal of it? Learning to breathe really slowly? Why though?
Ironically, or perhaps I should say inevitably, I wasn’t actually getting a lot done. I was multi-tasking so that everything was done quickly and incredibly badly, and had to be re-done later. Life felt like a never-ending carousel of chores. I think we can all agree that our time on earth is finite, and not ideally spent trying to clean up shadows.
Emma Seppälä has a wonderful surname and is the author of The Happiness Track, which at first glance seemed like an odious self-help book for monochrome business people (‘How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate your Success’). As my only ambitions in life relate to things like books and melted cheese and seeing the Northern Lights, I did not think this would be the book for me. I was wrong.
On reading a few of her articles about rest, I realised that she’s basically looking out for anyone who is in a nonsensical frenzy. A category that feels like home sweet home. There’s a lot to it (I’m in the middle of her audiobook now) but what struck me initially was her mention of daydreaming.
Yeah, remember that thing?
When was the last time you zoned out completely? On the train home from work everyone is glued to the flickering blue screens of their phones. We clock off work and then plug in to rolling newsfeeds. There is a tsunami of information crashing into everyone’s lives. Every single day.
Daydreaming is dead time though, I thought. Dreaming about things that haven’t happened is just, well, a way for the mind to distract itself from utter boredom. Seppälä counters that daydreaming is in fact a rich, busy part of our inner lives. It is the way we problem-solve, the way we build imaginative bridges toward desired outcomes. You daydream of a work meeting going really well, or time-travel tourism (pre 1950 destinations require so many vaccinations though), or surprising everyone by doing a back-flip at a rollerskating party even though it’s your first time there, or you daydream of disaster, or what it would feel like to lose things that matter to you, and all that time, your mind is actually prepping itself and working out how to deal.
The idea that whole days go by without a moment – a few seconds – of daydreaming, is the stuff of nightmares. And that is exactly how I was living. No wonder I didn’t have the sense to notice what a shadow looked like. My brain hadn’t had a second to itself all day.
I tried this weekend. I left my phone off all Saturday morning, and I listened to music, and then just let silence in to my flat, as I sorted through some old creative projects that meant nothing to anyone except me. Harder still, this week, I’m going to leave my phone alone on the long boring commute, and sit there with my coffee, not thinking about anything in particular. I’m going to cook dinner without Netflix buzzing on the laptop next to me. I’m going to uni-task, not multi-task.
I thought that relaxtion techniques were utterly tedious, but it turns out, resting is the stuff of mere minutes. It doesn’t have to mean scheduling a new activity like yoga or meditation, at least not at first. It starts with a few moments of doing absolutely – really, truly – nothing. And being content that doing nothing is not the same thing as wasting time. My teenage self would be so proud.