One day my afternoon meeting was canceled. I was unexpectedly presented with the gift of unscheduled time—five hours of open, unfilled space to do whatever I wanted.
I immediately flipped open my laptop and started researching. I researched everything, anything; something that would interest me, something to do. Something to fill the space.
After distractedly surfing through movie schedules and museum exhibits, I bumped into a link for the “10 hardest workouts” in New York. Wouldn’t that be a great idea, I thought, and so I flitted through a whole host of kettlebell, circuit training, and boot camp options—none of which sounded remotely like anything I would do.
But then I remembered that I needed a new pair of sneakers. And so I sped over to the Nike website and discovered that there were so many new styles, all of which were so fabulous that I couldn’t decide. At this point, I went back to movies, because I had a documentary in mind, but it turned out the film was only playing way downtown.
What then followed was a speed train through hot yoga studios, great city walks, dog parks for shy dogs, independent bookstores, places to buy cooking supplies, and kirtan performances—which is when I woke up.
I shut my computer and took a deep breath, pulling the air down into my body. “Stop,” I said to myself. “Just stop.”
I looked at my watch: I had been down the rabbit hole for two hours. Two of my five free hours were gone. I felt agitated, anxious, paralyzed, and overwhelmed with possibilities, but unable to move on any of them. I was “twired”—tired and wired at the same time.
I put my hand on my heart and felt the simplicity of stillness. “Be here,” I said to myself. I then unhooked from all the ideas of what I should or could do with my time and just felt my own physical presence. I took a few conscious breaths and invited myself to relax and land where I was.
What I felt next was an immediate sense of relief and peace, allowed to be where I was and to not do anything at all—nothing other than pay attention to what I was actually experiencing.
I became aware of a longing to call a particular friend. I also felt the desire to take a walk, be with myself, and be outside. That’s what came to me, organically, when I dropped into my body and the moment.
The Paradox of Choice
One of the problems that technology is creating for us is a feeling that we should be constantly taking advantage of every available opportunity—and if we’re not, that we are missing out on life.
We believe that there is something, somewhere inside Google, that will make this moment complete. Someplace else that is better than where we are. Something more that we ought to be doing.
We no longer ask ourselves or let ourselves discover what we want to do. Rather, we ask Google what’s possible, or what we can do. The thing is, what we can do is often very different from what we want to do. We frequently find that what we want to do is much simpler.
When we listen in to what we actually want, from the body, the answer is clear. It’s without ambivalence or confusion; it has a sense of “Oh yes, that’s right.” On the other hand, the “can’s” and “should do’s” leave us feeling murky, lacking the clarity that comes with truth.
Technology has created an infinite number of choices. We can do anything at any time. And yet, while we may delight in the idea of choice, research shows that when we have too many choices to make, we actually end up unhappy, deadened, overwhelmed, and immobilized.
With unlimited options, we frequently end up making no choice at all. And if we are able to make a decision, we generally feel less satisfied with our choice and concerned that another option would have served us better.
Unlimited choice also causes us to shut down our creative thinking. When presented with too many options, we often default to the simplest one, or consider only one variable. The more technology beckons with possibilities, the more we pull the covers over our heads and find ourselves frozen in a perpetual state of both too much and not enough.
The issue, too, is that we are looking outside of ourselves for our own truth. When we have a free afternoon, we look to the internet, hoping to find something that will excite us. When we cook dinner, we go to Instagram to tell us what we want to eat. When something happens in our life, we post the experience online to find out from others what it should (and likely will) mean to us.
Changing Your Mind
We have forgotten that we can know things through our own experience. We have forgotten that the process of knowing can happen from the inside out, not the outside in.
The next time you find yourself with a chunk of unscheduled time, even just a little (while standing in line, or riding public transportation), try living it in a new way and creating a new habit. Instead of immediately searching outside yourself, on your phone or computer, instead drop into yourself, into now. Feel your body, the sensations arising, and how you are at that exact moment.
Pay attention inside; notice if there is a natural longing or interest already present. If nothing comes, that’s fine; just stay still and keep attending. Practice not doing, not filling the time, not habitually forcing something into every open space as soon as it appears. In so doing, you are, in fact, turning yourself into a destination, and a place to be.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. A regular blogger for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post, she has also authored several books on mindfulness and personal growth. Colier is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com.