Sir Richard Branson, (who I have a massive crush on) just turned 65. For his 65th Celebration he decided to ask the general public for ideas of ways he could challenge himself over the next year. Some of the suggestions to date have been rather interesting, but for his first challenge he decided to sit quietly for 65 minutes and do absolutely nothing.
That’s right….nothing. He just sat, staring into the distance, nothing but his thoughts and beating heart. One minute for every year he’s been alive. He chose a wickedly comfy-looking chair on one of his porches on Necker Island looking out over the ocean. I mean, who wouldn’t accept that challenge in THAT location.
But when I saw the photo I was struck by the idea that this might be a really cool challenge to attempt myself. I don’t have a uber-comfy-looking chair and I most certainly don’t live anywhere nearly as cool as Necker Island, but I thought, “How hard can this really be?! Plus, since I am only 39, I only need to do 39 minutes. I can totally do this!”
So, I dropped my son off at art camp and headed to a local public park. I took only my car keys, my cell phone (for the timer) and a bottle of water. I turned the timer on my phone and turned all notifications off. I placed the keys and water beside me and sat down on a bench and began my 39 minutes of self-imposed solitude.
There was a sudden, nauseating wave of panic. “What if someone NEEDS me? What if that callback I have been waiting for happens 12 minutes in?! What if someone on an internet forum is WRONG and I am not there to tell them?!” It was sheer panic, folks. I sat there for probably three minutes running through worst-case-scenarios in my head and fighting the urge to just declare myself far too important to the balance of world order to take 39 minutes unconnected – it really would be irresponsible and could have drastic, far reaching consequences.
Then I spent a few minutes arguing with myself (internally) about how ridiculous these notions were. My self-importance was laughable, and even I knew it! There was nothing that could possibly happen in the next 39 minutes that would require my caped-crusader-persona to abandon my park-bench-perch and set the world a-right. So there I sat…
39 minutes of solitude. I didn’t pray. I didn’t meditate. I didn’t really even think that deeply. I let thoughts come and go through my mind without concentrating too much. I listened to the leaves rustle above me in the trees. There was a light wind and I turned my face towards its breath and let it tussle my hair. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
For a moment I was transported back to other times when I have sat quietly and let the wind stroke my cheek – a fleeting memory of my childhood and the field behind our house, a hilltop in Albania when I was 19, the final steps leading to the Acropolis in Athens, a fishing trip last summer to Saskatchewan. All these memories like flashes flitted through my mind. I noticed that my breathing had actually slowed a bit and I was starting to actually enjoy this exercise.
I started trying to remember other times in my life when I had sat in silence for an extended period… I couldn’t think of many (those who know me best will attest to this). I couldn’t think of many times – especially in recent memory – that I had sat and listened to the leaves dance and felt the wind caress my face.
And I suddenly felt sad… very sad. It dawned on me that the awkward feeling in the pit of my stomach was “presence”. I was fully present in that moment. I could feel my back pressing against the back of the bench. I felt the collar of my shirt and the repeated tapping of my foot on the ground. I realized I was fully present and alone inside myself.
This was new and awkward and very sad. Inside me shouldn’t feel so foreign and so strange… but here I was on a bench, all alone feeling like a stranger to myself. At this moment I picked up the water bottle and started to read the Fiji water story… and quickly put it down. Fiji water… come on now, is it that hard to be alone with yourself?!
Guess what? It really, really was. Presence. Being. These are really, really hard things for me. You see, I am a doer. I always have been. I don’t “be”, I “do”. Sitting on that bench I was being…and boy did it feel strange.
I started to cry – not even going to lie to you, I started to cry. This was way harder than I thought it would be. I can juggle three conversations, and a text message, while folding laundry, cooking dinner, and planning a family vacation for 21 people…but sitting on a bench for 39 whole minutes and do nothing?! No way!
For a moment the tears confused me. Did I miss someone?! Was there someone I wished were sitting beside me?! Was there a place I would rather be in that moment?! No, those weren’t tears for a person or a place, those were tears for the thousands of people I have been with in places I have enjoyed when I wasn’t fully present. All the thousands of hours I have spent in crazy doing rather than being.
How many conversations have I had when my mind wandered to my grocery list?! How many dinners have I attended when I was planning next week’s schedule?! How many business meetings have I been in where I dreamed of being home? How many times have I been at home when I dreamed of being at work?
I realized that I have spent a great deal of my life in outward motion – helping others, doing projects, planning for the future and all the while there was a “me” inside me that wasn’t being tended to at all. There is all this exterior work and I have lost touch with my insides, with the core of who I am.
And then it hit me – there is a difference between what I DO and who I AM. Who I am was sitting on that park bench. What I do is everything off that park bench. Who I am is that weird, awkward and unfamiliar place inside, and it was weird and awkward and unfamiliar because I had neglected it for so long. I hardly knew how to sit with myself… and that’s weird people, really, really weird.
But as a society we don’t do this enough. We don’t sit with ourselves. We don’t listen to our thoughts – oh we hear them, but we shove them aside because we have something to DO. We don’t sit with our feelings – we shove them aside or push them down to be dealt with another time when we aren’t so busy. We do and do and do and do some more.
So I decided to just sit with the icky weirdness of these thoughts and feelings and literally do nothing about them. So there I sat with my awkward, lonely, unfamiliar self. I didn’t think about my grocery list or my schedule. I thought about how amazing the sound of poplar leaves dancing on the wind is. I didn’t think about the bills I hadn’t paid. I thought about the beautiful contrast that white cloud was against the dark sky of the impending storm. And I thought about how awesome it was to sit and do nothing.
When the timer finally buzzed I was actually sad to leave. I felt like I had been reunited with a stranger whose company I really enjoyed and I had to leave them again. But, my son needed a ride home and supper needed to be made and the laundry changed and an appointment booked and the dog walked …and…
39 minutes of solitude….it doesn’t seem like much, but it was amazing. And I challenge you to try it. Grab a bench and sit with your awkward self and see what you find. I bet you find something equally awkward, weird and unfamiliar, and I hope it makes you want to return to that bench over and over, because it has for me!