Turn off the music.
I was just about to open Spotify. And then I didn't. I've found myself doing that a lot lately. The reason I didn't open it is that I decided in that moment that I wanted to be where I am.
Lately I've been busier than I like to be. Busy-ness tends to build a momentum that makes quiet moments feel like opportunities for action. Or stimulation. Anything but nothing!!!
I know that my life is richer and calmer when I'm more fully present. And I know that I'm more fully present when I deliberately leave quiet moments in-between things... quiet. So as I've reached for the play button on Spotify, I've paused and simply asked myself - am I fully here? Is this an opportunity to catch up with where I'm at right now? Does the mind need some quiet time?
Sometimes the answer is that I am fully here and a bit of emotional stimulation, a bit of pleasure is perfectly fine. Music is an emotional stimulant. Podcasts (at least the ones I listen to) are mental stimulants.... which almost always trigger an emotional response of some kind too. There's nothing wrong with them as long as we're not using them as fuel for destructive emotions like hatred, or mindlessly using them as a distraction from reality.
I say mindlessly because mindful use of distraction can be very skillful. A few months ago I was attending a Spanish language school and I noticed one of my classmates was always wearing headphones. She'd only take them off once the class was starting and she'd put them back on as soon as she was out the door.
I had the chance to ask her about this and she enthusiastically told me about how she ALWAYS listens to music and how she couldn't live without it. I asked her what would happen if she didn't. She said she'd fall apart, she just didn't know what she'd do, she wouldn't cope.
Later she revealed that she had just left her home country of Lebanon on her own to set up a new life in Spain. She was 22 years old and had just uprooted her life to a new country where she knew no-one and was only just learning the language. For her, music as distraction was helping her cope until life felt less tumultuous. That's possibly a skillful use of music in that time of her life.
But frequently it's not so skillful. When my life is busy, I often find myself reaching for the play button because stimulation has a momentum which makes a quiet moment feel uncomfortable, out of place, like it needs to be filled. When I feel this compulsion to press play in order to chase away discomfort, I've instead been choosing to be where am, with whatever thoughts, feelings and body sensations are there.
Sometimes this is stretching on my yoga mat at the athletics track before a training session with the sound of the birds and the cars moving down the nearby road. I take notice of my current experience - mind activity, emotions, body sensations.
Sometimes it's at home where I've finished all I need to do for the day and I don't have the next thing planned yet. I notice the light on the trees, the temperature of the breeze, the state of my mind and my body, including any discomfort at doing nothing for a bit. I let it be.
Last week I drove for nine hours (over the course of three days). I turned on the radio a couple of times... and turned it off soon afterwards. I recognised a rare opportunity for a BIG dose of nothing time which I know grounds me in my current experience, and also lets my mind wander to places that take time to get to. Those opportunities are remarkably rare!
Now I'm not saying for a moment that music, podcasts, books and videos are bad or unhelpful to human flourishing; not at all! The title of this post is a bit of a tease.
What I'm suggesting is that if we automatically hit play, as soon as we feel the discomfort of a quiet moment, we can be missing those opportunities to ground ourselves, to fully be with our experience, to let our minds settle, or in some cases to let our minds roam to places a little further off the To-do List Highway.
If you find yourself automatically filling quiet moments with music or podcasts/videos, I want to suggest you do a little experiment. Pause and notice. What comes up for you in that moment if you do nothing? In reality you're not really doing nothing, you're pausing and noticing, but you're not seeking stimulation or sensory input, you're not engaging your mind in doing. If the experience is unpleasant, see if you can hold your seat with it (not be bucked out of the saddle) long enough to get curious about it. What kind of unpleasant is it? Where is the unpleasantness coming from? What can you learn about your own inner process by exploring this experience?
I enjoy everything more when I have spaces in-between things. I'm calmer, less reactive, and more creative. I get to the end of the day, or week, or year and feel like I was actually there for my own life. I fully inhabited it. It didn't just pass me by in a flurry of activity. I was a human being, not a human doing.
Consider giving it a go. It's one of the three commitments of my virtual organisation called PAR (People Against Rushing). If you find it valuable, there's more info and a free PAR card here.