Zanny Merullo Steffgen
A couple of weeks ago at work I ran into a little problem: in order to play music in our yurt dining area, we needed a phone that had access to songs and could be connected to the speakers by Bluetooth. As manager, it’s my job to set up the restaurant’s music, but I don’t have a subscription to a music app or site. In this day and age of Spotify, Pandora, Youtube, and countless other music streaming services, this may seem rather funny. It was definitely a surprise to my coworkers when I asked for a volunteer to lend a phone. It’s not that I don’t love music–some of my fondest memories are dancing on tables in clubs around the world, or singing with my acapella group at Exeter, or listening to REM on the way to school–it’s just that I make conscious (and unusual) decisions in order to find room for stillness in my daily life.
At some point during my 20+ years of Cystic Fibrosis or dysautonomia-related doctors appointments, I decided that waiting rooms were a place to practice boredom. Sometimes, of course, I bring a book while I wait for surgery, or flip through the office’s magazine collection while waiting for some blood test or another, but most of the time I try to just sit there and breathe. These are some of my most dedicated moments to the present, the time when I focus my mind on what is going on around me and push myself into the discomfort of nothingness. That’s what I do with all “boring” moments, actually, is force myself to go through them, see them as medicine for my mind. Waiting in line at the grocery store, I avoid pulling out my phone when the moments drag on, and instead try to summon my gratitude for the ability to buy food. Sitting in traffic, I take the time to check in with myself, remember I am alive. Whether it’s my lifelong curiosity for spiritual practice, or perhaps my mind-altering experience walking the Camino de Santiago, I have come to believe that much of our mental trouble in life comes from filling the stillness of our mind with constant distraction.
During meditation retreats I’ve been on, especially my most recent one, I have always been amazed by how loud my mind seems once I focus on it. As soon as I sit in meditation regularly for a few days, I can hardly bear the constant stream of commentary, the flashes of conversations, the echoing phrases or song lyrics, the worries and reminders, the memories, and the uncomfortable scenarios I make up for myself. When I walked the Camino de Santiago four years ago, it was something like an extended physical meditation. For a month I deleted social media apps off my phone, I put away my ear buds, and sent my computer ahead to await me in Santiago. Each morning I rose before the sun, and then spent the majority of my day feeling out the corners of my mind, to the rhythm of my footsteps on the ground. There was no music, no TV screen, no tasks on my to-do list. It was just my mind, my body, and the trail. As I hiked, all I had to focus on was the path beneath my feet as it morphed from gravel to sand, to dirt, to pavement. I would focus on the looming hills or forests, the changing moods of the sky and my own changing moods within. Sometimes my mind would drift to memories, people I had met or loved, parts of myself I didn’t like, worries for the future. Sometimes I would be stuck in the anguish of the day’s hike, feeling nothing but a heaping load of self pity for my blistered feet, or sore muscles, or torturesome thoughts. When I stopped in little villages for a cafe con leche y zumo de naranja, or when I reached the day’s destination and sat around a town square with a group of sweaty, tired pilgrims, drinking wine and snacking on patatas bravas, it was as if a certain part of my mind could relax. I had done my job for the day, I had been present for all the highs and lows and dramatic lashing outs of my mind, and once I’d finished the day’s walk I could settle into the present moment in a way I never had been able to before, and let the rest go. Interactions with other people felt pure and natural, my enjoyment of the food and wine before me was enough to keep me entertained.
Those were some of the happiest days of my life, and when I returned home from the experience I was deeply disturbed to see, with new eyes, the life I had led before. When I first opened up my computer and saw how quickly the screen could jump and change, how I could re-direct the browser with my every whim, I felt a sharp mental pain and confusion. Suddenly, the present moment was an arm’s length away, my focus clouded by my fast-paced reality. There was the trance the TV could put me in, the constant need for background noise and multi-tasking, the interruptions of conversations with friends and family or the not fully listening, the fleeting eye contact with strangers because there was too much going on within. Slowly, as the days passed and I was forced to take up some of my old habits, the space in my mind that had been left by the Camino was filled with the obligations (imagined and not) of modern life. My mind’s patience that I had cultivated for a little over a month was stretched thin again. Now, my Camino state of mind is nothing but a beautiful memory, one that showed me my greatest potential for inner peace. Sometimes when I meditate, or spend the day outside, or go on a retreat, I get another glimpse of that mental stillness.
After my experience on the Camino, then pursuing adventures and quiet in Cambodia, and the years since in which I’ve delved deeply into my mental patterns, I have formed strict routines in order to give my mind some stillness. In our modern world speed is everything. Our attention spans are limited by three-second videos, or the ability to scroll endlessly through photos on Instagram, by video games and TV shows and the unnecessary voices of social media. I often notice and am annoyed by how, even during yoga class or on a hike, many people I know need constant background noise. We can’t clean without listening to a podcast, can’t sit still without playing a computer game or watching a show while also scrolling through social media. No wonder it takes so much effort to clear our heads!
Here are some of the strategies I use to create habits of mental stillness:
Not always putting on music when I drive somewhere
Dedicating my commute home from work to looking up at the stars, expressing gratitude, and letting myself settle into silence
Putting away my phone as soon as someone wants my attention, or when I am hanging out with friends or eating dinner
Only allowing myself to watch TV when I come home from work and can’t sleep
Recognizing when I am doing more than one thing at a time and stopping one of them
Pausing throughout my day to take three deep breaths and refocus
Leaving my phone at home some nights when I go out with friends, enjoying the thrill of being present, reachable only by those who are with me in the moment. These are a few of the little decisions I make to benefit my mind. Although they may seem strange to some, I keep to them with a religious fervor, with the knowledge that these breaks from hectic modern life will help me reconnect with the greater pulse of reality. Then, the benefits of those moments appear just when I need that extra bit of calm or want to get over a bad mood. That’s why I refuse to let go of my memory of a clearer, calmer mind. Because even if living completely off the grid is not totally feasible for me in today’s advanced society, I will stubbornly hold on to the stillness I can control until I can get back to that total inner peace again.