Be alone in the way that matters most

Following on yesterday’s post about the importance of finding silence and solitude in your life, here is interesting insight from the authors of the same book about why opportunities for silence and solitude — so crucial to staying grounded in life and in self — are effectively missing from the lives of today’s younger generation.

In Have Mother, Will Travel, mother-daughter duo Claire and Mia Fontaine take a four-month trip abroad in hopes of reviving their flagging relationship. When 25-year-old Mia confesses that she came on the trip partly to escape the confusion and discontent she feels in her own life, and that she fears falling back into “business and usual” when she returns home, her 50-year-old mother has this to say:

Unless you regularly allow time for solitude and reflection [in your daily life], you’ll probably always go back to business as usual once you’re home, even after a whole summer away. Think about it, [your generation is] basically always available, by text, tweet, e-mail, Facebook; you guys even sleep with your cell phones. You’re never truly alone in the way that matters most — in your own mind; part of it’s always on alert, listening to see how much you matter to everyone else. All of my formative years, unless I was in school or happened to be home when the plastic box on our kitchen wall rang, most of the time my mind was mine, walking, driving, studying, doing chores. Being by yourself is a big part of how you get a sense of self. I think [your generation is] all scared to death to unplug and find out how much you really matter. It doesn’t seem to be enough for you to matter just to you.

I had never thought of it in quite this way, but it’s true: being tethered to a cell phone and to social media also tethers your mind to the task of waiting — waiting for that call, that tweet, that message, that “like,” that external signal that you “matter.”

Unplugging for an afternoon, a day, a week, a month gives your mind time to ease up and stand down. But unplugging isn’t easy, especially if you’re accustomed to being connected 24/7. And the reward for going offline — an unhampered, reflective mind that can more clearly identify and chart the path of your own life’s satisfaction — might not come instantly, either.

In fact, if you’re so used to being plugged in that the mere thought of two hours offline makes your skin crawl, then you’re probably going to squirm through any gadget-free time with your teeth gritted, your body thrumming, and your thoughts narrowed to that single moment when you can snap the cell phone back to life.

That’s OK. Unplug anyway. Then do it again. It’s going to take time for your mind to get comfortable with the idea of being completely unoccupied and left to its own devices, distraction-free. But with time, that level of comfort — and its associated benefits — will come. Perhaps that’s why Claire Fontaine suggests regular time for solitude and reflection. Repetition breeds habit, and it also nurtures comfort and growth.

I know for me, if I’ve been through an especially busy period or haven’t pulled the media plug in quite a while, it takes me a good few days of self-care to wind down and reach a point where I can relax and settle into that space of my own again. In these cases, I’m always surprised at how I came to lose touch with myself in the first place — yes, it’s easy to get caught up in “life,” but how did I get swept along for so long? Returning to that quiet space of uninterrupted self-reflection is always a treat, and I’m always glad that I took the time and made the effort to get there. It’s in this space, where my mind is my own and my true self lives, that I am able to really tap into the things that matter in my life. Just getting to that place is often enough; afterwards, I can move back into my normal routine feeling refreshed and recharged, with my eye and my heart clear about where I really want to go.

So in this world of cell phones and social media, I encourage you to unplug — completely — every once in a while. Unnerving as it may seem, it may also help you discover how amazing you really are inside.

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