I recently went on a retreat in one of the most beautiful parts of the Western Cape in South Africa where I live – the Hemel and Aarde (Heaven and Earth) Valley.
It was a silent retreat and as the world around me became quiet, and I was alone in nature I re-discovered the loudness of the noise inside my head.
Alone in nature I re-discovered the perpetual commentary inside my head
I was somewhat surprised at how innocuous this noise inside seemed to be – not negative nor critical, more like a companion that just did not know when to shut-up. The constant commentary took the form of questions, words, phrases, comments, descriptions, observations and all of this was extremely annoying to say the least. It had my attention, and kept my attention. I felt constrained and edgy. Of course I knew before the retreat that I think a lot – way too much. That I, like many of my clients, live inside my head. So whilst this awareness was not new, what was surprising was that it did not have its regular characteristic of being critical or judgemental – it was more of an assessor and evaluator or even commentator. The main thing that kept this perpetual commentary going was my minds attempt to calibrate and assess experience against some benchmark, standard or comparison. A bit like an aeroplanes transponder receiving and transmitting signals constantly as a method of staying on track.
I was frustrated at this constant transmission and reception as I did not have a target destination, neither did I want to navigate anywhere. I was here to be in silence and peace and this ongoing mental activity, as you may know from personal experience, is exhausting!
Here with an open schedule, nothing to say, no one to talk to and nothing to achieve I stopped and became more curious . It seemed to me that this constant companion was performing some duty that it took very seriously. It was my framework; a guide rope or security system that kept my mind focussed and engaged.
Only problem was it had my mind focussed on a what it pointed out, described and assessed from the database of past experiences, leaving me unavailable to feel and experience in a fresh and new way. This discovery of some of what gets in the way of being fully present is neither remarkable nor new, having been written about for ages by much wiser people than I. However, when the discovery emerges from your own direct experience of life it means so much more. It moves from the head and becomes embodied – literally part of you and then when this happens it is impossible not be changed by this deeper cellular knowing. As this awareness settled I felt a deeper desire to experience life stripped of the filter of this ongoing mental commentary –I no longer wanted my life to be controlled through the cockpit of my mind intent on staying on track and on target and safely aligned to historical standards and benchmarks.
View from the top of the waterfall experiencing freedom from my mental commentary
That night I slept for more than 10 hours and awoke with a sense of freedom that had me responding to the day from what felt right for me in that moment. I lived that day in this way from beginning to end - running to the top of the waterfall with a spring in my step, joy in my heart and a desire to shout out in celebration of being completely out of my head, delighting in creation and experiencing each moment with an immediacy that was exhilarating. This experience of being so present and at one with God and the world did not last forever however the reality of the experience is etched within me, and I have consciously revisited the feelings and memory many times since then.
Facing the noise inside my head “head on” does not mean it has gone, but it has lost some of its power to control me. Since the retreat I have reprioritised my time giving myself much more liberty and permission to do those things that I experience as life giving, not those that I think I should do or must do. I have developed more consistency in my silence practice and my exercise regime. I have stopped spending time on things that are busy, superficial and unconnected with my deeper sense of purpose.
We all are different, however we long for many of the same things. When we experience a joy and beauty that has us feeling at one with the world in a deep and personal way the effects are profound, lasting and ripple into all areas of life. Changing how we engage with ourselves, our loved ones, our work, our clients and our communities.
From my coaching work I see many people who, like me, struggle to find peace and quiet inside themselves when they stop all the doing. It is often at odd times like playing Lego on the floor with their daughter or their son after a busy and productive days’ work when it hits them more profoundly, or when they are eating dinner with their family and half listen as the background tape distracts them. They want to learn to switch off, to have just one weekend where they do not think and worry. There is no silver bullet or magic answer to finding peace and stillness from the noise inside our heads.
What I learnt was that these experiences of living immediately and in the present are gifts that somehow find us when we make ourselves available to live more from our heart and less from our head. The more we can learn to cultivate the conditions that support us to live from our heart and our senses the more the noise recedes into the background. This has helped me to integrate a little more of the retreat into my busy life.
The conditions that I am cultivating to liberate myself from the noise inside my head, and so make myself available to experience life immediately are:
· Spaciousness and gaps in my schedule
· Tuning into beauty – in all its forms – music, images, artwork, people, nature...
· Prayer and mediation
· Regular physical exercise
Now that I have felt the benefits I am consistently implementing the above. A virtuous cycle I believe….
What works for you?