From Busy-Bragging to Retreating....

I check my mobile and place it in the front pocket of my handbag, and carry on walking to the train station. Two minutes later…I go in to my front pocket, take out my mobile and check it again. Am I the only one that does that? Or is my addiction just particularly bad? It’s not that I heard it ring, or beep, or ting, or any of the other noises it makes to continuously distract me throughout my day…but I checked it anyway. I almost laugh at myself, as I think; if I just randomly tapped my head randomly every two minutes, I’m sure everyone would think I’m insane…but somehow this constant checking of our technology has become the norm.

My job has always been fast paced. When I was a news anchor, seconds literally mattered. If I was covering a story on location as a reporter, I’d be listening to the studio in one ear, the producer in the other and talking (usually) coherently live on air all at the same time. There’s a buzz to that pressure.

And let’s face it there’s a prestige to being busy. We’re always going…going…going…and all at the same time. We check our Facebook as we watch TV, we check our emails while we chat on the phone; we’re always worried about the next thing on the to do list. If you bump in to a friend and they ask, “how are you?” There is only one acceptable answer; “oh you know, I’m just SO busy”.

I started thinking about this (not very new to the world, but new to me) idea a few years ago. I can’t actually remember whether it was before my dad passed away or afterwards (and I would have been intrigued to know whether I was smart enough to think of it before he got sick. There’s nothing like death to make you think of life after all).

Anyway, I remember telling my friend Janine, that I was so over this “I’m so busy” culture. For me, at the time, I was busy with work - it was true. But, there was something else. It had to do with this idea of being busy meaning being successful. I would consciously fill my spare evenings with dinners and engagements. And while I would enjoy them, the overarching statement was always the same; I’m just SO busy.

True, at the time, I didn’t feel overwhelmed (you need to fast-forward about two years for that portion of the programme). But, I remember feeling that there was a sense of bragging about this “busyness” of ours and I vowed from that day to leave one evening a week (even two when I was feeling extra adventurous!) absolutely empty.

Many months later, I remember watching a video and having an “aha” moment. It talked about ‘busy-bragging’; “You know, the way that a certain kind of busyness – not the busyness that comes from having to work two jobs in fast-food restaurants just to make ends meet, but the busyness of having a high-status job, a family, household, the rest of it – has become a kind of status symbol.”  It also said for all of us who “work with information and computers, there’s no ceiling on how much we could theoretically do. And in a consumer economy, there’s always a better brand to buy, a lifestyle upgrade to make, which costs more, which means working more in order to earn more. . You’ll never get to the summit of that mountain, because the climb goes on forever. And worse, all that climbing is a miserable way to live, focused entirely on the future” and never on the here and now.

While I had recognised the signs within myself, it would take another year complete for me to really take on board how the symptoms were really affecting me.

I definitely know the main causes of my symptoms finally showing themselves. Before my dad got sick I was enjoying work (albeit with a dysfunctional manager who was chipping away at our office morale). When he did get sick and suddenly passed way, I remember feeling spiritually strong given the circumstances. I went straight back to work, and although much of it is a blur, I basically just carried on doing what I always do. In the meantime the chipping away of morale became a full out demolition. Every fallen brick wall, I would just divert to a new strategy and keep it moving. It increasingly stressful and always unnecessary. But keeping it moving is what successful busyness people do.

When I took the plunge to start my own company, it was with an 18-month delay (it was planned before Dad, but I simply didn’t have the mental energy for a year after). Starting that was a new level of work, but I loved it, I was enjoying it more than any work I had ever done.

But in the latter half of last year, I kept having a new feeling. At first, I thought it was triggered by the lingering (and by this point abominable) consequences of demolition debris. I wondered if I had just reached my limit, whether the attempts to “break me” had finally succeeded. But somehow I knew it wasn’t really that.

I couldn’t even say that I was “stressed”. That wasn’t the right word. I remember talking to my friend, Nabila, about it and concluding that the right word was “overwhelmed” but not in an “I can’t handle this way”  - more a “there is simply just too much noise” kind of way.

I suddenly hit a brick wall. But actually, the brick wall was me. It was something internal that had nothing do with anything or anyone else. “Why am I doing what I do?” “What is its purpose” “What is my purpose” “What meaning does it have” There was just a long list of questions (as cheesy as they might sound) and every road I looked to take, I only saw a long list of questions lining the path. And for the first time in a very long time I did not have the answers.

Ultimately (to cut a several month-long story slightly shorter), I stopped. I ended the media contracts I was working on because I knew they weren’t what I should be doing anymore. I knew I didn’t want to get other work straight away. And I knew (despite some good offers for more corporate type video work for my company) that wasn’t what I wanted either.

It was so easy to say “no, that’s not what I want” but I was suddenly completely stumped as to why I didn’t want it, or what I actually DID want.

I closed up shop. And I stopped. I literally just stopped. That was at the end of December. At first I thought that given 4 weeks, I would rest, reassess and have a plan….but the days turned in to weeks, and the weeks turned in to a month…and still nothing.

But actually, nothing is not the right word at all. Because slowly, things were realigning. I remember after about a month, work was still lingering as I still had        lose ends to tie. Someone called me at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon; I looked at the phone and I was so annoyed. This was an “off day” why were they bothering me, it was so disruptive. There was that “overwhelmed again”. I realised that passing feeling was in fact the constant state I had been living/working (really there is no line so why pretend there is) for over a decade. Now I know that may not be long to some people’s standards, but it wasn’t until I stopped did I realise how unnatural my natural state had been. It was non-stop, ruthless, 24 hours a day. From 6am until 2am, every day of the week. Year in, year out.

During these months, I also realised the additional burden that has to be juggled in this equation; how modern technology (mobiles and social media in particular) is adding to this constant pressure and burden. Everything I’ve written may seem so obvious to you all, but for me there has been a real distinction between knowing this for years and truly understanding it for the last few months.

I am still very much in the middle of this journey. Yesterday, I was supposed to research and write this blog. Instead, I was distracted every time my phone bleeped or rang, or email came through on my desktop. It’s not that I am learning to be disciplined or manage my time for the first time, but that I have undone everything I knew and relearning it in ways that are better but feel completely unnatural in this unnatural world we live in today.

So, in many ways this blog is another indicator of how far I still have to go; as I sat down to write it an hour before I have to leave, in the rush of my time confetti.

In my poor attempt at reading up for this blog post, I did have another little “aha” moment when I saw a book by Brigid Schulte called “overwhelmed” (I KNEW that was the right word!). Haven’t read it yet (I’m just far too busy! Only kidding it only came through the post today), but I thoroughly enjoyed watching this video which I think explains it all much better than I do.  In it she talks about “time confetti” this feeling of dealing with fragmented pieces of everything, all the time. For me, that definitely became the case, perhaps many others will relate.

Another interesting point she makes is that idleness is good for you.  She explains how writer, Mark Twain spent a whole summer, often just sitting or laying in the garden. “If we look at him through our lens of busy, crazy, fast paced 21 century lives, what do you see? Loser, slacker, get to work what’s wrong with you why are you wasting your time. At the end of that summer Twain finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

Or the Amnesty worker stuck on a train between Manchester and London. She sat idle, stared out the window and doodled. For four hours. In that time, JK Rowling said the entire concept of Harry Potter came to her.

“What we are discovering through neurosciene is that when we are idle our brains are actually most active. What lights up is something called the default mode network and it connects different parts of the brain that don’t typically connect; like an airport hub. So a random memory, a snippet of a song or a dream come together in a completely fresh way, for that “aha” moment, that moment of inspiration. Your brain is actually wired for that “aha” moment.”

That resonated for me. Because in the last 4 of 5 years I’ve realised I have become uncomfortable with stopping. I used to live with my eldest sister and she always used to flag this up. If I had a rare day off I would feel guilty about not doing anything. I would feel I had wasted an enormous amount of time, and failed greatly if I had spent all day in my PJ’s on a rare Sunday. It has been a struggle with myself on this point. But in these few months that I have stopped, something new has happened; that same sister who would flagged up my guilt feelings no questions whether I am doing anything productive with my time (and it is a valid question).  I had been explaining it by saying don’t think because I am sitting still, I am not more active in my mind than I have felt in a long time. There is a lot going on, a lot of connections and a lot of things to mull. So when, I heard this idleness speech, it made a lot of sense to me…and I had my own little “aha” moment there and then.

In the video, Schulte says fMRI brain scan studies at Yale University have found that this “overwhelmed” feeling we are suffering from is actually shrinking our brains (by 20%!) and how monks who meditate have larger brains. Exploring this, a Harvard University study found that Americans who took part in an eight-week mindfulness programme showed expansion in their brains in areas to do with self-consciousness and identity, emotions, memory, panic, fear and anxiety. All from as little as 27 minutes a day of yoga/meditation/simply being present.

I found that interesting because several months ago, I was finding that my overwhelmed, time confetti distraction was seeping its way in to my prayer time. I would literally forget my place while praying, and it wasn’t even because I was thinking about anything else, it was just a general distraction and absent-mindedness. I remember at the time contemplating whether to take up some yoga and meditation classes. I found that thought interesting. As a Muslim, I believe that my faith is a holistic practice, so I wondered why I was looking outside of it to meditate. The Islamic prayers themselves are a form of meditation, and the same way Buddhist’s may talk about the Dharma of Distraction, Muslim’s too have to practise the discipline of prayer and engage with it and “drown out the noise”. The thing with (Islamic) prayer is that you can easily tick it off the list in an automated manner, and take nothing from it. I have tried over the last few months to do the same process of unlearning and relearning with my prayers. I sit in silent meditation on my prayer mat for 10 minutes before I start and I try to focus on the spiritual essence of the prayer, and even the movements of my body, kneeling and prostrating. I try and slow down and take considered breathes. I feel I am a complete novice.

There is something both extremely vulnerable and extremely liberating about this entire process. I feel it has taken my (short) lifetime to get to the beginning of it. I sometimes get frustrated that there isn’t more, especially, Islamic education on this aspect of my beautiful religion (although I think that it may be me not looking, or not looking in the right places).

A few weeks ago, while on this journey, I saw a poster that made me go “aha” AND “yay” (extra exclamations, definitely progress!).  It was for an “Etekhaf” taking place in London

Etekhaf literally means to stop in a certain place. In the Islamic context it means staying in a mosque for a minimum of 3 days. It can be done anytime of the year, but ideally between the 13th and 15 of the holy Islamic month of Rajab (that would be now) and the last 10 days of Ramadan. During these three days you fast, meditate, pray and reflect.

It is basically a spiritual retreat (again, I can only think to compare to Buddhist mindfulness retreats that have become very popular these days).  

I’ve never done one before, but in the literature sent to me beforehand it states that “this spiritual retreat is about returning back to the self, and ultimately God. Putting away the worries of our daily lives and thinking about our reality; which is the soul. This short period is an opportunity for the human being to reflect on their actions, their dealings with those around them and to strengthen their relationship with their creator.”

“The period of I’tikaf is the best time to force one’s self to sit and think and reflect on the self and the world around; the period of the I’tikaf is the best time to forget the worries of the transient world and to return to their own soul and the Creator of their soul”

“It is not a holiday, nor is it about idleness and being ignorance of self. It is a Spiritual revival where the individual has the opportunity to transform”

“It’s important to note that Islam does not promote seclusion from society. The etekhaf is only a temporary retreat that lets us re-enter society a better person; a person who is more loving, caring, forgiving and kind to humanity. A person who wants nothing but good for everyone and who is striving towards closeness to God.

It sounds amazing. But I’ll be honest I feel I am throwing myself in the deep end. And I’m not going to lie…my main thought is how am I going to survive without my mobile for “all that time”.

But, it is all a part of the adventure, and this beautifully scary journey that I am in the midst of. I am constantly trying to do things that I’m scared of. One of them is just to freely write my thoughts down as I have now, and put them out there. And I won’t even know what anyone thinks of it because I will be “spiritually retreating”.

I hope when I come out in three days, I won’t look at that fear the same way anymore and that I may have answered some of my questions at least.