I’m working on my next book, which is about how to reach the mind through the body and the five senses—because my mind is my body, and my body is my mind.
I was drawn to this subject because I wanted to shake myself awake. Too often, I felt numbed, overwhelmed, or absent-minded–or should I say absent-bodied?
My hypothesis (spoiler alert: it’s proving to be true) is that to wake up my mind, I could go through my body: that the best way to get inside was to go outside. By exploring the world with heightened attention to my senses, I hoped, I’d experience a surge of vitality and creativity.
I wanted to wake up, and people kept saying, “Gretchen, you should meditate.” But I’ve tried meditation, really tried it, twice, with months of daily practice—and it left me cold.
I realized that I wanted the opposite of meditation. So what’s the opposite of meditation?
At its most basic, meditation is a self-regulation exercise to train the mind to promote greater awareness, calm, self-command, and focus, in the present moment.
Beyond this, it’s hard exactly to describe meditation, because like “sports” or “Christianity,” the term “meditation” describes a huge category of practices, beliefs, and ideas. Confusingly, many people use the terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” interchangeably. One helpful distinction is that some forms of meditation are described as “focused attention” meditation, where people focus their attention on something such as an object, a word, a person, or breathing, while others are described as “open monitoring” meditation, where people direct and maintain their observation of their thoughts and experiences in the present, without judgment.
Within these categories, people practice many forms of meditation, which share the aim of training us to be more intentional with our thoughts.
I used to assume sheepishly that I was the only person who didn’t find meditation useful, but when I started asking around, I realized that my experience isn’t unusual. Like just about everything, meditation an extremely useful tool for some people and not others.
What about mindfulness? Sometimes it’s described as a state of “egoless awareness.” Renowned meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn has defined mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Meditation is the most popular way to cultivate mindfulness, but it’s not necessary.
There are many powerful reasons to cultivate that disciplined state of mind, but I realized that I wanted to do just the opposite.
I didn’t want to empty or quiet my mind; I wanted to flood my mind with sensations. I wanted to go on a quest though the world, to explore. I wanted new impressions to pour in, in ways that I couldn’t predict, to stir up the unexpected memories, remote associations, surprising connections, and overlooked facts. I wanted to reflect on the present and the future; I wanted to get back inside my body by getting outside my head. I wanted to feel free, to play.
There’s so much focus on focus! Of course, sometimes I seek to focus—and I can say, I’m good at focus—but at the same time, I want to allow my thoughts to range, unburdened by any purposeful tasks or direction.
I’ve spent many years pursuing self-knowledge and self-mastery. Now I wanted to illuminate my thoughts from the outside—not with detachment, not with discipline, but with wildness.
I wanted to let my mind off its leash.
And I wasn’t interested in pursuing the mental states of daydreaming or flow. Daydreaming is the sweep of memories, simulations, and inner monologue that fills our mind; in daydreaming, we pull our attention away from perceptual input and external tasks, and become directed inward. In flow, we’re fully immersed in a task and working at the edge of our ability in a way that gives us a sense of energy, focus, and complete absorption—so complete that there’s very little self-awareness or self-judgment, or even a sense of the passage of time. I did plenty of positive daydreaming and I spent time in flow, and I absolutely recognized the benefits, but I didn’t need more.
I didn’t want to daydream, I didn’t want to enter flow, I didn’t want to cultivate mindfulness or meditate.
To boost my vitality, creativity, and insight, I wanted to widen my gaze. I knew how to lay out a careful, deliberate argument; now I wanted to skip the boring parts, grasp remote connections, and reach for crumbs of meaning. I wanted to think about myself, and forget myself. My desire to execute could make it hard for me to loosen up, to stray from the path, to play. As much as I loved lining up my books along their shelves, I also wanted to rifle through my junk drawer.
The opposite of meditation didn’t mean the rejection of meditation. Meditation doesn’t work for me, but it has been a powerful tool that people have been using for thousands of years.
Practicing the opposite of meditation was complementary to meditation. Meditation is way to achieve a certain mental state; I was aiming for a different mental state entirely. The opposite of a profound truth is also true, and people who value meditation would likely value its opposite.
So what’s the opposite of meditation? What missing element did I want to restore to my life?
Recess. I wanted recess.
When I was a child, we left the classroom every day. Sometimes I played games—formal games or games I made up—sometimes I talked to my friends, sometimes I played on equipment, sometimes I worked on little projects I’d started, sometimes I wandered around by myself, sometimes I examined leaves or ants or clouds.
Recess was an open, unstructured, creative period when I was out in the world and doing whatever I felt like doing. It was a wonderful change from the usual discipline of my school day, so I made the most of it—and I had recess every day, so I didn’t need to use the time efficiently or make a schedule of tasks.
These days, controversy rages about the fact that in many places, children’s recess time has been cut back or eliminated to create more time for academic instruction. Research shows the foolishness of swapping playground time for classroom time; children are far better able to sit still, focus, and learn when they’ve had exercise, sunlight, and freedom. If anything, they needed more recess time.
And just as children need more recess time, so did I.
Some people need meditation; I need recess.
What’s the essence of recess? How could I visit the playground of my own mind?
I realized that for me, recess offered many key elements.
- It was a physical experience when I engaged with the world, with my body, with sensations, away from books, boards, and tasks.
- It happened every day.
- It was scheduled, but unstructured and uninterrupted.
- It was exploratory.
- It was creative.
- It was a break from the discipline of my day.
- I didn’t need an instructor or directions.
- It was adventurous.
- It allowed either social time or solitude.
- It was playful and fun.
- I didn’t worry about doing it properly.
Thinking about recess made me realize that while every aspect of recess was important, it was that first element that was key to everything else: It got me outside my own head and into my body.
I could use this aspect of recess as the key to recreate recess in my life as an adult.
I could give myself the luxury of recess by exploring the world through my body and my senses.
Of the playgrounds of my childhood, I remember the sensation of the Big Slide’s dangerously hot metal against my bare legs; the satisfying thunk of the rubber ball in our game of Four Square; the metallic smell of rain when it fell on asphalt, and its dusty smell when it fell on grass; the taste of the snow we’d eat when the teacher on recess-duty wasn’t watching; the bright crayon colors of everyone’s winter jackets. My favorite playground has been demolished; maybe I’m the only one who ever recalls how the exposed roots of one tree made a perfect miniature landscape—beautiful like a Chinese scroll, though of course I didn’t know that then.
From the time I learned to read, I’ve spent all of my free time with books, enraptured by the scenes unfolding inside my head, but for recess, I was outside my head in the world of sensations.
In my adult life, for recess, to explore my five senses, I’ve done things like:
- smell every single perfume in a perfume shop
- buy a set of colored felt-tip pens to use instead of boring blue and black
- set myself the goal of buying something scarlet when I visit a thrift store on my weekly adventure with my daughter (haven’t done this lately, obviously)
- play with cornstarch
- make Jiffy Pop popcorn with my daughters
- make daily visits to the Metropolitan Museum (interrupted but soon to resume)
- give myself a silent retreat for three days
- taste a Life Saver with my nose plugged, then with my nose unplugged—big difference
- take an evening cheese class
- work on a book of aphorisms
How I love studying the senses! It’s so cheering and energizing. I’ll post more soon about the senses—how I was drawn to the exploration of the five senses (what we can call the kindergarten senses), how I engaged them, with what result.
The restrictions and uncertainties of the pandemic have affected this study, of course. The dramatic changes it has imposed have affected the way I experience my life—as is true for everyone.
Do you think you could use more recess in your life? How do you give yourself the luxury of recess?