Hi, I’m Kim and I am an addict.
My substance of choice? The constant chatter of my own thoughts.
This may not seem like much of a problem. After all, thinking is intellectual, right? Thinking is creative, right?
True, and true again, but like many addictions, a moderate amount can be good, or at least OK (for example, food or alcohol), but too much is a problem. While there is a positive side to my active mind – I get good ideas from time to time – I am beginning to realize how unproductive chatter seems to continue almost nonstop. While it does not really get in the way of my daily life and I function at a high level, there is a price to pay in terms of optimum contentment and the effects of stress on the body.
I only recently began to see this as a problem. Yes, there have always been annoying times when thoughts have kept me up at night and I can’t seem to shut them off, or a song would stick in my head. A little bit of neck and shoulder tension does tend to creep up on me too, but that’s normal stress, right?
Yes, all of this is what we label “normal” for human beings, but I have become less and less tolerant of mere “normal” standards for my happiness and contentment lately, ironically as I find more and more of both. A recent trip gave me more of a slap than a gentle nudge in the right direction . . .
“Finally!” After 5 cramped hours in the car, my husband and I pulled into the thickly forested drive in Northern Wisconsin. The familiar wooden sign nailed to a tree at the entrance distinguished this long driveway from the 4 or 5 other dirt and gravel ones on this side of the lake. “En-Dah-Win” – Native American for “my home in the woods.”
The Eagles were singing Take It Easy as we rounded the bend, stirring up a bit of gravel on the way. Familiar sights appeared – a gigantic pile of neatly stacked firewood, the lake, Wilbur the slow-moving Bassett hound with seriously bad teeth, a clothesline with clothespins waiting for wet towels and swimsuits.
Bags need to go in the house, have to get the salmon into the refrigerator, maybe I’ll change clothes. Did I remember to pack the book I was reading? . . . Wonder what we are doing for dinner tonight.
After tossing a couple of bags on the bed in the cabin, I decided on a quick walk out to the pier before attacking my “to-do before relaxing” list. At 2:30 in the afternoon, it was cloudy and cool, and I knew that I would have to wait until morning to see my favorite view of the lake, with the early mist rising and the glassy surface mirroring the tree line.
Oh well, I’ll just take a quick look anyway. Then I can get organized, and if the weather doesn’t get any better, I can work on a crossword puzzle or check my e-mail.
Avoiding a small stump in front of me, I inhaled my surroundings. The smell of pine needles permeated the air. I breathed in again, this time as if it was my very first breath. Exhaling slowly, I felt my shoulders slump, relaxed.
Halfway down the wooden steps to the pier, a hollow, rhythmic noise startled me.
Is that really just the sound of my footsteps on the cedar boards?
Against the backdrop of silence, my intrusion was shockingly loud. I wondered how long it had been since I last noticed the sound of my feet.
Stopping, I listened deeply. I heard an occasional birdcall, the scampering of a small animal across the leaf-covered forest floor, an acorn as it hit a hollow log. I listened deeper and other sounds emerged – the gentle breeze, the subtle disturbance of a leaf as it settled to earth, the sound of the almost still water quietly caressing the shore.
So this is what “still” sounds like.
Speaking loudly, moving too quickly, even mental chatter – they all seemed suddenly inappropriate and out of place. Whatever came next – unpacking, cooking, . . . – it could wait.
Suddenly there was no place else I wanted to be, no better weather, no mental clutter. I knew I had entered rehab for my thinking-obsessed brain.
I regretted leaving as we packed the car to go home 3 days later, fearing that I would lose the feeling. After all, I have practiced mindfulness before, tried gently coaxing my thoughts away “like leaves on a stream.” I practice yoga weekly, and there are times when I feel peaceful, but not as continuously as I did during my time in the woods.
As with any addiction, I will take a day at a time, continue to practice, and remember how real peace feels. If I find myself relapsing, I can always check myself back into my Northern Wisconsin rehab center.