Over the last several weeks I discovered a luxury I’d been missing. I didn’t know it was a luxury. I didn’t know I was missing it. I never thought of it as a luxury. But, it is. For the moment I’m indulging in doing nothing. Yes, nothing. Oh, I know we can’t ever be doing nothing. Even when we’re asleep, we’re doing something. One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced during the last year is overcoming the habit of being in constant motion both physically and mentally.
After two months of decluttering, donating, selling, cleaning, paint touch ups, spring garden tidying, mulching, cleaning some more, making everything sparkle, the damaged deck replaced, it was show time. The house went on the market. The new deck, which is the result of two cherry trees falling on the old one, the downsized amount of furniture and the fresh feeling of the house and yard almost make me want to stay here. Almost, but not really.
Following the major clean-up I spent a week or two fidgeting as I looked for activities to fill my time. Like a leaf in the wind I blew here and there doing whatever I convinced myself needed doing.
Then, I went to Detroit for a few days with a friend. With tickets to experience Immersive Van Gogh, which was mesmerizing, but way too short, we decided to spend a couple nights so we could shop (I bought one tiny little thing) and visit The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Three days of wandering through museums and shops and art space. Leisurely breakfasts and lunches and dinners. Talking and sharing. Sleeping later than usual. I felt like I hadn’t felt in years.
Returning refreshed I decided to just be for a while. To do nothing. Easier said than done. Years of caregiving had my monkey brain still engaged full tilt. Over my caregiving years I learned to anticipate the next need, upset, crisis putting myself into forever proactive mode. If my predictive efforts didn’t anticipate the next caregiving event, there was, of course, flight, fight or freeze. Rarely did I freeze because I never stopped thinking or doing. And, there was never a time including respites where I focused on just being. Now, I realize what a luxury it is to do nothing.
Remember mindfulness? I wrote about it, practiced it and left it behind probably at the time I needed it most. Mindfulness is achieved by being mentally present. I’d been thinking for so long about the future and replaying the past in my head that I lost the habit of being conscious of my surroundings, my body, my emotions and not even paying slight attention to my current thoughts as they were swallowed up by stressing over what was to come. Somehow, I had to unearth the ability to live in full awareness of the present moment. It was there once; I could relearn it.
Enter neuroplasticity. Remember that? I also wrote about neuroplasticity, took classes on the brain and brain research at Furman University OLLI. Since then, the research on mindfulness and neuroplasticity continues to support the fact that we can create new neural pathways, even in cases where the brain is injured. When we learn something new, we rewire our brains. I’m on a track to rewire my brain with new neural pathways to respond to situations sans flight, fight or freeze. I’m reorganizing the connections in my brain. Doing nothing is helping me. By deliberately slowing my days I’m choosing what to do with intention each day, to be mindful and conscious.
Intention is not the same as having a to do list where you tick off each accomplishment. It’s not setting goals. My goal is to rewire my brain, but it is the daily practice guided by my intentions, which enables me to reach that goal. To me an intention sets the tempo for my day. It guides me. Working in my garden carries an intention such as, “I intend to be aware of the beauty and life in my garden.” Other intentions could be “I intend to eat a healthy diet today” or “I intend to practice mindfulness today” or “I intend to forgive others and myself”.
We often tend to believe if we put ourselves on idle, we’re being unproductive, lazy, wasting time. For me, doing nothing is not actually doing nothing, but, instead, being present, mindful of the moment with intention. Remember meditation? I was always good for about 5 minutes and that’s where I’ve started over with my meditation practice. Years ago I took a course in Buddhism, which is where I was introduced to meditation. The one important part of the practice, at least for me, was learning thoughts enter our minds even as we want to empty the mind. My instructor taught me to identify each thought as positive, negative or neutral, then let it go. It works leaving me with a clear mind, which affords room to consciously rewire of my brain.
During my years of working I prided myself on what I could get done in a day. In the early years of retirement I felt the same way. Following Martin’s diagnosis and years of caregiving, however, I’ve changed my mind. It’s taken the last year, and at times, I still find myself feeling as if I accomplished nothing in a day. And that’s ok. Letting go of old habits takes practice and time. For the most part, I now cherish the ability to slow down, reflect, feel joy, be grateful, create and live in the moment. It’s the luxury of doing nothing.