All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.–Blaise Pascal
I was sitting in a mindfulness breakout session in Dublin last week when the leader wrote this quotation on his whiteboard. It was one of those sentences that grabbed my attention because I immediately recognized the truth of it in my own life.
Just before the start of the New Year, I decided that I would take a twelve-month vacation from alcohol. It’s not that I considered myself an alcoholic, or a problem drinker; it’s just that I didn’t like some of the habits that I was slowly developing: The half bottle of wine each night at cocktail hour. Mixed drinks, lots of them, at weekly dinner parties. The Guinness or two—a meal in a glass—each time we sat in a pub.
I didn’t like the weight I’d gained, or my loose tongue, which seemed to illicit arguments. I didn’t like how my speech slurred or my feet staggered, particularly in public. I didn’t like the way I watched the clock and got irritable when my regular fix of Merlot and cheese weren’t forthcoming. Or how I could pound back a gin & tonic, or five, like it was fucking Kool-Aid.
So, just like that, I stopped drinking. I just stopped. And some funny things happened.
First, I was surprised by how uncomfortable my refusal to drink made other people feel. Some of my friends insisted that I take a break from my commitment and “enjoy myself just that one night”. They’d pour me a drink, despite my protestations, and place it by my plate, just in case I changed my mind. Did I want to change my mind? Was I ABSOLUTELY sure? Truly, Ruly Sure? Cause I could have a drink if I decided I wanted one.
Second, I became hyper aware of those moments I really, really wanted a big, fat glass of wine:
- Those first few evenings I was breaking my habit
- Social situations with way too many people
- Whenever I was tired
- Any night out, after one too many nights out
- Any time Walt was mad at me
- After I’d paid the bills
I realized that there were certain uncomfortable feelings—fatigue, fear, doubt—that I did not want to experience. That I’d been using alcohol to mask.
Third, with alcohol out of the picture, I began to notice other vices slipping in to do the job. When I felt socially awkward, for instance, I’d turn to foods I normally eschewed. Instead of swigging wine, I’d stick my snout into the scalloped potatoes or that tray of desserts. When I got tired, I’d surf the net instead of unwinding under the stars with a shot of Jameson. (I mean, God forbid I go to bed.) After I paid the bills, or got into it with Walt, I’d work and work and work until I dropped. Instead of tamping it all down during cocktail hour.
The thing is, we all have our favorite methods for numbing out. For avoiding sitting in a quiet room alone with those icky feelings.
For a surprising number of my clients, work is their vice of choice. That panicked, frenetic, behind-the-curve feeling that accompanies a ludicrous schedule is what keeps them from connecting with the truth of their lives. The fear and the disappointment and the insecurity. Not that I would know anything about those.
For other folks, it’s shopping, or smoking, or casual sex. Then there’s gambling, and co-dependent relationships, or reading romance novels eighteen hours a day. They all do the job of keeping us from experiencing our selves
A long time ago, my friend Beth asked me if I were capable of sitting in a room doing nothing at all. I told her that the closest I came was when I spent the rare half hour on the couch knitting scarves. She was pretty sure that didn’t count.
And so I ask you. Can you sit quietly alone in a room?
If not, what do you use to distract yourself from you?
Now, what would it be like for you to switch that up?