Put the shampoo bottle down

Do you remember having to take naps as a kid? Being forced to just lay there in silence for hours! Okay, probably like 30 minutes, but it felt like eternity. Do you remember the sound that silence made after a while? Like a wave or white noise machine, that deafening, on-going whoosh type noise. Almost as if you could hear your insides–heart beating, ear drums waiting for something to happen. I don’t hear that sound very often now that I’m an adult.

How about you? Do you remember what silence sounds like? Can you try it right now? Just put your phone down or turn away from your screen and just be quiet. Try it for 60 seconds.

. . .

. . .

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That was WEIRD, right? To just sit there in the quiet, nothing particular going on, not listening to something or watching something or accomplishing something, just being there in the silence.

Sometimes, when I’m in the bathroom (yeah, this is gonna get weird), when I’m just sitting there–where you might normally sit in a bathroom–I’ll suddenly realize I’ve picked up my shampoo bottle and started to read the back of it.

Literally. Reading my shampoo bottle. Here’s the thing–I have NO interest in the back of my shampoo bottle. I’m not like super jazzed to read about all its ingredients. It’s just that there was silence and there was nothing happening, and when nothing is happening it’s weird and uncomfortable! So I’ll grab anything–anything–to fill the void.

What do we call it when all of a sudden everyone stops talking and there’s just this quiet? We call it an “awkward silence,” right? We can’t stand it. We have to fill the silence.

Soooo frequently, we just automatically hate letting nothing happen. We have to find something–noise, information, food, color–anything–to fill the quiet times, the slow times, the empty moments.

What is your shampoo bottle? I bet you do something like that! I bet you find yourself cramming your quiet moments with stuff and things and information that you actually don’t care about, just because you can’t help it.

Do you pick up a magazine in a waiting room that you would absolutely never pick out in any other context, just because it would be weird to just sit there silently? Do you have to be listening to something or watching something every time you eat? Or do you have this compulsive habit of picking up your phone? Hopping on social media?

How about this: Have you ever realized that you’re mindlessly browsing Facebook, set your phone down, and then immediately picked your phone back up and mindlessly popped Facebook right back open?

 

Why do we do this? Why do we so automatically fill every spare second, every quiet moment, with NOISE? Information, media, activities, stuff. So often the things we fill every second with aren’t actually things we care about, but we do them because we’re so uncomfortable stopping.

Why do we catch ourselves reading the backs of our shampoo bottles?

Why can’t we just be quiet sometimes?

I think that it has a lot to do with fear. Sure, there’s definitely some habit, some addiction built in there. But I think even if we could stop distracting ourselves all day every day, we might choose not to, because of fear.

Each one of us have weird stuff in our lives. The stuff that sometimes keeps us up at night. Fear, uncertainty, confusion, hurt, crappy feelings. Quiet brings those feelings to the surface. When we just let quiet time be quiet, silent time be silent, suddenly we discover we have all these thoughts and feelings that we usually keep buried down inside us as we hurtle through our days. You know what feels better than facing our deep down selves? Facebook again.

When we slow down, embrace the quiet, and just be present with ourselves, as ourselves, for ourselves in this moment, we sometimes feel a lot of discomfort. Or maybe all the time. (“Every of the time.” – Kevin Malone)

Have you ever told someone, or had someone tell you, that they like to keep busy because it’s hard to just sit with their thoughts?

 

Quiet brings out the real. It brings everything to the surface. And I think that we generally expect that this is going to be disastrously painful.

 

But my own experience tells me that when you embrace the quiet, eventually it becomes so much better than expected. After a while, sitting quietly, embracing the silent, empty times can be one of the most wonderful parts of life.

After high school I spent a while volunteering in Ethiopia and in Uganda. Every day there, we had time to take naps in the afternoons. We walked slowly places, saw the sights, smelled the smells. And at each meal, we had time to just sit and visit and enjoy the moment.

It was quite the culture shock for me–not going to Africa, but coming back to America where life happens at breakneck speed. Suddenly there was hardly time for anything! Every moment was crammed full of stuff. Everyone walked quickly. Everyone drove quickly. Me, too! It took some reacclimating, but it just became life again: Hurry, hurry, hurry!

My wife and I got married and honeymooned in Italy (ugh, memories). A strange thing happens every day in many parts of Italy from about noon to 3. All the shops close up and everyone goes home to just sit quietly with their families and friends, relax, eat lunch together (probably cheese :'( oh my heart), drink wine, and just generally enjoy. This love for peaceful moments plays such an important part in the Italian way of life, they even coined a special phrase for it: Il dolce far niente. “The sweetness of doing nothing.”

I wondered if maybe I should insert some academic quote or study here about how beneficial it is for people to take more time to be quiet, to relax, to let go of doing, to just slow down, be present. But I don’t think any of us actually need to be convinced of this. I’m pretty sure this is something we all already know deep down. Right?

Are you too busy? Does the pace of your life make you feel stressed? Do you feel like there’s some really important stuff you’re missing out on because you’re always, always, always going, going, going?

 

Life has some really amazing stuff in it that you can only find and experience and appreciate when you sloooooow down, be present, and embrace the silence.

But slowing down makes us uneasy. We get addicted to filling each moment, and when we stop filling moments we start feeling unfamiliar feelings and OMG that’s weird.

So we zoom zoom zoom through life, like it’s a computer game, and even though we know we’re doing it the wrong way, we can always slow down and be present next time. Only, we don’t get extra lives. There’s no next time. If we rush through life and fill every second with distracting noise–that’s it. Life will be gone. It was your last life, and now it’s game over.

So maybe we need to go ahead and start slowing down today. Facing those silent times. Embracing those silent times.

 

Consider for a minute–what else could you find if you slowed down?

Try it now. Take this time. Look around you.

What do you see?

What do you notice?

What do you see that you don’t usually stop and appreciate?

There are probably some happy things around you.

There are probably some noises that you used to find interesting, comforting, or therapeutic.

There is probably some stuff that you like, that brings you lots of joy, but that you kind of forgot about.

Maybe there’s a human person sitting next to you with human person feelings and needs and a heart, somebody there for the connecting and the loving, and you forgot to notice that something that important was right there.

Feel your ear. Go ahead, touch it. You have an EAR! Isn’t that crazy??? Your ear is a beautiful and incredibly complex and elegant and delicate little instrument. And it is so much cooler than your iPhone! It gives you balance and spatial awareness. And it lets you hear the voices of your loved ones, and beautiful music. It’s amazing, right?

I bet you’re happy you have an ear. But I bet you forgot you have an ear today.

Did you know massaging your ear lobe is an easy and quick stress reliever and even pain reliever? And you have it free to you every day. Do you remember your ear?

Look outside of the window. What do you see? Something that’s there, there for you, right now?

How about a tree? Do you see a tree? Do you like trees? Trees are beautiful, right? Has a tree ever made you feel happy? Of course! What about today, though? Did a tree make you feel happy today? Pssh, no, why would you have looked at a tree today?! You’ve got to get to work! You have so much stuff to do!

Last weird-thing, I promise. Reach into your pocket, or your purse, or your bag. Or maybe look at your wrist or your finger or your neck. Do you have something with you that you’re wearing or that you keep on your person–something that makes you happy? Something that means a lot to you? Maybe a ring or a bracelet or a necklace. Or something significant on your key chain. Maybe when you saw it in a gift shop, it reminded you of adventure and you had to buy it. Or maybe it was a gift from someone special. What’s your thing you found? What does it mean to you? Does it make you happy, or bring you feelings of love? Let’s be honest, though–how often do you actually notice it anymore? Like when I bought my new car a few years ago, that was an incredible machine full of potential and adventures to be had. I appreciated it and wanted to show it off to everyone. I’d wake up in the morning and go oh man, my car! And then it got normal, and I forgot to notice it, and I forgot that I appreciate it, and I forgot that it makes me happy, and now it doesn’t make me happy anymore.

Until I slow down.

What doesn’t make you happy anymore because you are too busy to notice it? What is something you know you would like to get back in touch with, if only you could slow down a little bit? What do you take for granted now? What beauty and happiness in your life are you too distracted to have anymore?

I couldn’t help but ask for you to say it all again.
I tried to write it down but I could never find a pen.
I’d give anything to hear you say it one more time
That the universe was made just to be seen by my eyes
With shortness of breath, I’ll explain the infinite:
How rare and beautiful it truly is that we exist.

Saturn, by Sleeping at Last

 

So do you want to slow down? Do you need to slow down? Need more quiet times? More time to just be present? Discover beauty around you, discover yourself? Quiet time to just get in touch with yourself and what matters to you?

Me, too.

 

I hope that thinking about all this–thinking about your version of shampoo-bottles and how silly they are, looking around you and remembering what you’re missing when you’re too busy to look around you–I hope that all this inspires you a little bit to slow down, to be quiet, and to be present. To put the shampoo bottle down. It takes a lot of practice, I think. So good luck!

In case it helps, I have three little tips: Meditate; Go outside; And literally put “Downtime” on your schedule.

Meditation: Have you tried meditation? Have you tried making it a regular part of your life for a while? I think it’s amazing. Of course, there are hundreds of different kinds of meditation, and each kind works for some people and doesn’t work for others. Actually, “work” is the wrong word to use about meditation. See, I think the kind of meditation that helps us slow down and be present isn’t a meditation that “works.” It doesn’t fix our lives, get rid of our pain, make us happy. It is just a way to practice accepting exactly where we are, who we are. Accepting things. Accepting everything. Accepting life. So that when those awkward silences happen and when the alone-with-your-thoughts times come around, it’s okay for you. You’ve learned to breathe through the weird stuff. Only then can you be present for the good stuff, too. If you haven’t tried meditating, I’d really encourage you to try it. Click here to read about how meditation helps me, and click here for a couple great places to get started.

Going outside: Guys, outside is FREE! And it’s RIGHT THERE! It’s so accessible, just waiting for you to go be in it. If you don’t know where to go, ask a friend! If you live in Minnesota, ask me! And if you’re an introvert and asking people about something unfamiliar is scary, pop open Google Maps and look for the areas shaded green. Leave your phone behind and just go walk. (I know, this is the 21st century and leaving your phone behind is an absolutely terrifying prospect. See Ryan in The Office, season 8, episode 11: Trivia. Leave me a comment if you already know exactly what he says because then I want to be your friend.) Or at least leave your phone in your pocket. And just go. Go walk. Go sit or lie down under a tree. Go feel the fresh air. You know what’s not outside in nature? Your long to-do list, your crazy inbox, your busy workweek, your stressful social obligations, your house that needs cleaning. Nature is a great escape. It’s a place of beauty, a place of inspiration, and it’s a place that makes all the busy, stressful parts of life seem a whole lot smaller. So get outside! Escape! Find beauty! Find quiet!

Scheduling downtime: Okay, I’m going to bet you don’t have free space in your schedule these days, right? But let’s be honest, if you have absolutely no space to squeeze free time in to your schedule, you need it more than anyone else! We can’t afford not to. We only get this one life to be present for. We need to slow down sometimes. Like–top priority. I’m doing research for a school essay and ran across some scary statistics: You and I (the average American adult) spend well over 2 hours a day on social media type stuff on our smartphones. And we spend over 11 hours a day interacting with some kind of internet connection and media (see this eye-opening graphic from Nielsen). I really bet we do have time to slow down and be quiet and be present–if we make time. And if scheduling downtime really still seems impossible, if you really do have too much to do, then maybe just get reckless and throw your to-do list away for a day. Before you turn 85. Life goes fast! So please–commit to downtime.

I hope these help. What are your ideas for slowing down, finding quiet, and experiencing more present moments in your life? We’re all in this together!

 

Have you seen Pixar’s movie Up? Have you cried watching Up? Okay, have you cried like a baby watching Up? I thought so.

One of Pixar’s most iconic scenes, because it touches us on such a deeply human level: The old man, whose wife has passed away, is feeling guilty and regretful–they didn’t do all the big stuff they were going to do together with their lives. He pulls out an old photo album and flips through the pictures of their life together. And you know what he finds? The quiet moments. The little things! Sitting on a park bench feeding the birds. Sharing a mug of coffee at the kitchen table, smiling and laughing. Holding hands. Laying in the grass. Turns out they lived the richest, sweetest, most fulfilling life together they possibly could have lived. (Here, watch it again. You know you want to.)

See life has so much beauty to be found. So much peace to be found. So much love to be found.

But we’ll miss it if we don’t slow down.

So be slow. Be quiet. Be present.

Beauty, peace, and love to you!

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the mindfulness teacher:
“It is indeed a radical act of love just to sit down and be quiet for a time by yourself.”

~

Eckhart Tolle - Most humans are never fully present

Urgent vs important

Henry David Thoreau - Not enough to be busy

Can you imagine the feeling, finishing up a task, sitting back, and thinking to yourself, “Hmm… I literally have nothing left to do today!” That would be really weird, right???

Life just needs to slow down. Right? But I have a hundred things to do today. So much to catch up on. So much to organize, fix, clean, or find. So many people to get back to. Those things I’ve been wanting to try, and stuff I’ve been invited to.

I happen to think it’s a particularly American tradition to live every day at a breakneck speed. We never, ever, ever run out of things to do right away. When my wife and I got married and honeymooned in Italy we learned that the entire country traditionally closes its shops and sends its people home from work for a few hours over lunch. I often reminisce about my days in Ethiopia and Uganda, where even hard-working people walk slowly wherever they go and spend hours in peace and quiet with family or friends.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury in the States. We have stuff to do. Always. We wear our over-flowing inboxes and day-planners like a badge, like there’s something special about our ability to cram a thousand little things into every single day.

But what are we even busy doing?

 

When are we going to do those deeper, bigger, more meaningful life things? The things we keep putting off “until we have more time.”

I think the big things that we want to do–that we want to look back and be happy about at the end of our lives–we want to do just right, and we want to do with unlimited time and attention. So we keep putting our real life off while we try to catch up with our bottomless stack of to-dos.

 

What would happen if you set aside the urgent stuff today? Let them just not happen? Would you finally start writing that book? Take your kid out to do something fun together? Make a plan to eat healthier and exercise?

And what if you kept ignoring so many of those “urgent” things–would you keep writing, stay more connected to your loved ones, and discover you actually have time to get to the gym most days?

 

Urgent vs Important–we constantly face a choice between the two. Urgent is the squeaky wheel whining for your attention. But at the end of your life, which will you wish you had chosen more often? Urgent or important?

What big life thing have you been putting off for years because you’re always too busy? What if you decided this weekend you were just going to start it–no matter what notifications pop up?

Priority #1: What do you dread?

I have a natural tendency to ignore stressful things until they go away. (Which they don’t.)

It’s not really a natural tendency. I think I learned it through some very tough young adult years full of confrontations and stalemates. But I want to say it’s “natural” to give myself some credit: It’s not “The New Me.” I’ve been trying to kill it for years. It’s putting up a good fight, though.

I’ll call this tendency “Avoidance.”

A breakthrough in my fight against Avoidance came a couple years back when my insightful manager started using a kind of a mantra with me: “Rip the Band-Aid off!” It was excellent advice. She helped me see things in a new way. Dealing head on with a stressful issue is always, always, always (always) less stressful. It’s like when you were a little kid wiggling at your Band-Aid, tears brimming in your eyes. It hurts less if you just rip it off–no matter how scary.

But dealing with problems is not always as quick and easy as “ripping the Band-Aid off” sounds, so I want to explore this idea a little further and in a bit of a different way.

 

Sometimes you have an extra difficult choice to make, and it’s one that looks less like a quick fix and more like a long, exhausting journey. And you can choose to avoid it.

Picture yourself at the most out-of-shape you’ve ever been. I remember gaining 75 pounds after I got back from Africa 6 years ago. A bachelor, full of emotional stress, not sleeping, and eating free burritos every day. Suddenly my body was almost 150% its former size. I felt stupid and unattractive. I felt incapable. Defeated. You know how I felt and you know how hard it is to make the change I needed to make.

I dreaded seeing myself in the mirror, putting on clothes, letting my family see who I’d become, being shirtless in front of my girlfriend. Painful feelings–fear and disgust.

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t just “rip the Band-Aid off.” When I have to tell my landlord I accidentally put a hole in the drywall–that’s a Band-Aid I can rip off. 75 pounds, on the other hand, is not a Band-Aid you can rip off. That’s a giant mountain you have to move.

 

So I’m 75 pounds heavier than I was just a couple short years before. Feeling ashamed and insecure. I want to be fit, I could be fit, but I’m just not. And I have two choices. I can start my long, hard journey back to a healthier me–or I can avoid dealing with this problem. Tell myself not to worry about it–it’s okay.

Avoiding it means I also get to avoid dealing head on with how I really feel about myself. Avoidance means a lot more time on the couch for me, a lot less time sweating and feeling insecure at the gym in front of a bunch of people who the world tells me are a hell of a lot “sexier” than me. Avoidance tastes more like pizza and less like broccoli. Avoidance is way easier.

But the stressful issue of my weight remains. It’s not going away. And the longer I avoid it, the worse it’s getting.

Dealing head on with the thing I dread is my other option. I can start the journey I know deep down inside I really want to start. I can start making healthier choices in what I eat, how much I exercise, and when I get to sleep.

So I choose to make the change. I tape up a piece of notebook paper in my closet. Every day I weigh myself and mark my new weight on the paper. Then I pull the hanging clothes back in front of my paper because I feel embarrassed and I don’t want my girlfriend to see my struggle.

I lose 5 pounds and I feel excited. Inspired. Then after the weekend I step on the scale and I’ve gained it back plus a little to spare. I feel my heart in my throat. This happens a few times and I give up.

Avoidance is easier.

After a few sad years of feeling ashamed, powerless, and out of control, my girlfriend helped me make a change–just a couple months before we got engaged. We committed with each other to be in this for the long haul. We completely restructured our day to day lives. The dreaded problem become one of our top priorities. We fought it every day. Not sadly or without a little fun and relaxation here or there. We fought it in a positive light, with excitement and ambition. We fought with consistency and dedication. With focus. It became a major priority.

It no longer was a dark cloud always in the back of my mind. It was my challenge. I felt good about how I was dealing with it. Yes, it was still hard and stressful. But I was dealing with it.

 

Work is really the same way.

Why do heart attacks occur most often on Monday mornings? (It’s true, Google it.) Because we dread going to work. Because there are big, scary, stressful, depressing issues at work. There are the things that cropped up yesterday and there are the things that have been simmering for a long, long time.

Usually when it’s a situation that came out of the blue, you can rip it off like a Band-Aid.

But then there are the underlying realities at work that make our jobs stress us to death. Unrealistic sales goals. An unfair boss. Self-centered co-workers. Irresponsible employees. Our own bad habits. There’s always a mix of these, but usually there’s the big one: When you leave work thinking “If only…”–what’s that “if only?”

Let’s say for example that this is why you dread work these days: “If only my boss would actually listen to me.”

How did we get here? The first time your boss cut you off, you didn’t immediately lose all motivation. So how did it become the big thing you dread about work? I’d argue it’s a mix of two things:

1. It’s happened a lot.

2. It’s become your “mental model.” The way your mind knows and explains how your boss functions at his core.

Sure, it’s your boss’s fault that he keeps talking over you and won’t give you the time of day.

But maybe it’s your “fault” that you’ve let it happen to the point that you think it’s just the way things are, your boss is a jerk, and it’s not going to change.

Notice that this is not a Band-Aid you can rip off. You have so much pent up frustration, and your boss is so entrenched in his habit, that it’s going to be a long, slow, painful, stressful journey to a healthier relationship. You have to retrain the mental model you’ve created for how and why your boss is who you think he is. You have to keep addressing the offense, patiently and positively.

If you start working on it today, and I mean really working on it–making it one of your very top priorities at work–it will slowly get better. More importantly, you’ll feel better–sometimes immediately.

Or you can avoid it. Avoidance is easier.

But it will get worse, and worse, and worse. And one day you’ll suddenly realize, “I hate my job! This is killing me!” And you’ll find yourself completely incapable of dealing with it anymore. And you’ll give up and walk away, battered and bruised.

And then the process will start over with the next “big thing” that goes wrong at your replacement job.

Avoidance or chasing the solution without delay. . . .

 

What if every morning you felt yourself stressing about work, you asked yourself: “What do I dread about going to work?” And then made that your #1 priority for the day?

We can make a practice–a habit–of immediately dealing head on with the things we dread, or we can let Avoidance rob us of time and happiness and continue in a cycle of failure and broken relationships.

What big thing do you dread? What can you do about it today?

 

Picture two different worlds a year from today: A world in which you started dealing head on with your big “what if” today, and a world in which you put it off a little longer.

before & after