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ideas for a new earth

  • Abigail Wilson

Retreat from Urgency: Healing the frantic mind

photo of a clouded ridgeline in Cascades National Park by Abigail Wilson
©Abigail Wilson 2021

Breath moves inward, warming as it comes. A single moment of high tension, and air sweeps along tiny hairs in an exodus from my body. A longer moment settling before the breath, once again, moves inward.

I do my best to focus my attention purely on this cyclic sensation, but am aware of a growing pressure in everything that surrounds it. It’s like someone standing behind you, or the stress of a stretched-out bungee cord. I feel my consciousness pushing against it, retreating before its insistence. And then the thoughts break through.

Why am I even doing this? It’s so boring. I could be doing something else right now. How can this not be over yet?!

I’ve been meditating an hour a day, every day, for the past two months. I’ve meditated off and on for six years, but this technique is more focused, more demanding. It feels more like practice than any other technique I’ve tried. I am frequently amazed at the sheer effort of will it takes to continue sitting, watching the air nudge my nose hairs.

Two months’ worth of hours spent wrestling with my brain, and the greatest challenge I’ve met is the spectre of impatience. My body, my brain, my consciousness have all been trained to move quickly and constantly.

When I left a high-stress job in technology, I decided to take a sabbatical by car through many of our beloved public lands. You could be forgiven for thinking the reason for my trip was pleasure, to see and do it all. But the truth is that I had forgotten how to be still. I craved silence. My brain felt like a turning kaleidoscope of ideas and anxiety. The only way I could sit still was through chemical intervention.

And so I chose to walk into nothing. To retrain my brain away from urgency and overload, I needed a context where my phone was just a flashlight. The only evidence of Homo sapiens, my own presence. Many would call this a spiritual quest, a journeying into the revived archaic, but it started out very physical.

The brain is damaged by urgency. Multitasking, rapid context switching, constant sensory and information input, and a lack of rest are contributors to cognitive decline and dementia. It may even shorten our lives. Speaking from experience, it can also lead to anxiety, fatigue, and depression. Mix in a little extra trauma, and you may find yourself - as I did - moving in a constant state of fight or flight.

This survival mechanism, developed to protect us from hungry predators, finds no resolution through the stresses of modern life. It builds in the neurologic system, frying circuits as it goes. I was a crispy burnt potato.

While in the job, I had accumulated many techniques to alleviate that stress, solutions that will no doubt be familiar. Meditation, yoga, chiropractic. Long walks in the woods. Phone-free time. It felt like I was fighting a war, and losing.

To heal my nervous system, I felt a need to immerse myself in nothingness. No room for anything until I could feel peace within my body.

So here I am, somewhere shy of one hour, willing myself into stillness. There’s a many-tentacled monster in my mind, and every time I sit it gets a little quieter.

Learning how to be safe is long and worthy work.


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