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Anyone for less stimulation?

I live in a culture of more.  More music, more cars (or in Portland, bicycles), more food of more kinds, more exercise, more sex, more multi-tasking, more electronics, more travels, more therapy, more personal growth, more “friends” (oh, those social networking sites!), more recycling, more news, more movies, more social action, more websites, more art, more appointments (crowded palm-pilot or Blackberry), more service to more people, more photographs, more phone calls…. But just this morning, as I was exchanging emails with Susan (more emails), it occurred to me that I may be hard-wired for less. Or to put it another way, maybe I need more solitude, more silence, more daydreaming, more walking alone in the forest, more reflecting, more gazing into the clouds. Reading. Writing. Maybe my attraction to Buddhism is really an attraction to sitting still, doing nothing, and not being perceived as lazy or inadequate for it. (Not that I am much bothered by other people’s perceptions. The problem is that I absorb those perceptions and judge–and limit–myself.) In fact, my need for more quiet may actually have something to do with these damn migraines I have been suffering from increasingly since I was in my twenties. Is it permissible to seek less stimulation in life? What a concept.

Nobody ever talks about the tyranny of connection. It’s always supposed to be a good sign that people are “connected.” I’m not saying I want isolation or disconnection. The very idea that I might be needing less stimulation came to me through connection–through an email conversation. Here is a piece of that:

 She: I never used to take time to cocoon. I was really hyper and always moving when I was younger.

Me: I’m opposite of course. If we go back to childhood, I was mostly alone and happy that way. My memories are of watching clouds, playing with dogs, listening to the sounds of the wind and birds and different kinds of trees, making miniature towns out of moss and sticks and bits of gravel, cracking rocks open with my little hammer to see what was inside, and–as soon as I learned how–reading and writing. And if I don’t have solitude, I begin to feel deeply uneasy and a little crazy. I get SICK from too much interaction with other people.

I surprised myself when I said that. It’s true. But I hadn’t looked at it so clearly, and wouldn’t, if I hadn’t been involved in that email interaction with Susan, which encouraged me to look at our differences. So I’m not saying I want to go live in a cave for a decade (though I have had such fantasies). Ten days of silence in a vipassana meditation center is quite enough of that. But I am saying that I might be healthier if I did less. That requires a real shift of consciousness. The desire for solitude is generally perceived as eccentric (at best), evasive or isolationist. Probably unhealthy. And again, the perceptions only matter when I internalize them. Which it appears I often do. “Loner” is not a term of admiration, generally. In fact just a few months ago, as I was teaching Byron, my students found his romanticizing of the outcast not only repulsive but frightening. They associate “loner” with “mass murderer.” This in itself is a sign to me of a culture off balance.

Balance is the thing. We are social creatures. But how social? Maybe we’re so far off-balance as a culture that balance looks weird to us. Sick. Dysfunctional. But some of us may not fit this picture. Some of us (me?) may be hard-wired from birth (or before) for a kind of inner balance that may not accord with the culture in which we find ourselves. I saw that with my two African daughters. Certainly the culture in which they were born is a convivial culture, a communal culture in which people are never alone and never expect to be alone. For Palesa, that was perfect. For Manko, who loves solitude, it was a nightmare. The girls were not products of their culture. They were very different people, and for one of them the southern African lifestyle was perfect; for the other, it wasn’t.

As I have been finding my bearings in this new home of mine, I’ve been looking for things to do. People to meet. Places to go. And interestingly, I’ve been having more migraines here than I had when I was teaching full-time in Houston. Maybe the migraines are a way my body says: shut out the light; turn off the music; be still; get off the computer and quit socializing–or else I am going to pound you into a jelly of quivering pain. I wonder if there are other people who are not cut out for the culture in which we find ourselves. What if migraines, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and anxiety disorder are all ways the body responds to over-stimulation? OK, OK, I’m a doctor of philosophy, not a doctor of medicine. So I will just mind my own business. I’m going to see what happens if I systematically and intentionally cut down on stimulation. For me, that’s a cliff-hanger. For the rest of the world, probably not so much.



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10 Responses to “Anyone for less stimulation?”

  1. Dave says:

    I definitely get sick from too much contact with people. The worst is those gatherings when everyone is jockeying to tell their life stories, to be clever, to out-clever….those occasions drain me and if I stay too long, a headache is sure to result. I do like very small gatherings at my apartment where I cook (so I can run to the kitchen). I like when the focus is on food! I am a loner for sure! I have been with my partner for 15 years and the secret for us is our independence. We never walk through museums together. It is much more fun for us to compare notes later on. We discovered this in Milan. We had a huge blow-out fight and we both stormed out of the hotel on separate paths. We both ended up having amazing days wandering the city on our own. It works for us. I definitely am unconnected. I only carry a cell phone for emergencies. I don’t want any electric organizer because thank God I don’t have much going on in my life to organize. When I travel, I like to carry a little notebook and a glue stick. I paste in ticket stubs and cut- up ephemera I find along the way. (Of course I jot down all my impressions). I am proud to be anti-technology. I love the sound of Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain on the turntable. I love old bookstores. I love gardening. I love cooking. I love parks. All of those activities are for loners like me, and they are low-tech! Works for me! If I were in Portland, I would try to get a community-garden plot and I would try to grow herbs and Swiss chard and maybe one rose bush….I heard roses grow well in Portland.

  2. Kathryn says:

    As we have long known, Dave, you and I have plenty in common (I don’t like cooking or gardening, but everything else you say is also what I enjoy). Beautifully written self-description there. I didn’t realize you’d been together (apart) for 15 years! I thought this Brazilian connection was something new. I hope being in the same town doesn’t cause too much stress for you both. Sometimes long distance is the sweetest way to do it, even though it also has its drawbacks. It’s good to hear you say all this. I wish more people admitted this kind of thing. It does us all good. That’s sort of like saying, “Anarchists unite!” Actually, I should say ANARCHISTS UNTIE! But now I’m getting silly.

  3. Bob Currier says:

    I completely agree that Balance is the thing. For me, part of the challenge of maintaining that balance is noticing–preferably before I get too wacko–when I’m tipping in one direction or another. I tend to think that I’m managing just fine thank you, then I realize that either I’m overwhelmed with commitments or I need some good human contact, but everyone thinks that I’m such a total loner that they’re not keeping in touch. It’s very hard for me to adapt to the degree of “connectedness” that you describe, and I completely agree that it seems to be the norm these days.

    Another part of the issue for me is that I feel the vast majority of the “connection” is very superficial. It’s hard to find people willing to put in the time and attention for genuine sharing.

    I really seem to have my “cranky pants” on today.

  4. Kathryn says:

    Cranky pants. I love that!

  5. h sofia says:

    I am an introvert very close to the extrovert “line” – I moved closer to that line through much effort. For me, I have no real problem being alone – so long as I feel I’m being productive/learning. When I feel I’m not doing “enough” by myself, is when I start to feel that ooh, I should be with other people. If other folks are like me, they might socialize as a way to feel busy. Or, perhaps, they really are more productive around others.

    I was just talking to Michael this morning about how much impact our minds sustain. I read recently that up until 100 or so years ago, the average person on earth came into contact with 600 different people in their ENTIRE life. I can brush shoulders with that many people in a single day if I’m in NY. And that’s not including all the people I’ll see on television, hear on the radio, or read on the Internet. I wonder about the effect of all that stimulation and contact on our bodies and minds, which – evolutionarily speaking – haven’t had much time to adjust.

  6. Kathryn says:

    I have not heard this idea before, Hafidha, but it makes sense. You’re right–we haven’t had much time to adjust to this enormous, unimaginable change in perspective. As though the whole world has taken seats on airplane or a space ship and can look down at whole cities, at whole hunks of continents, at the blue marble of the planet, all of us spinning together in space simultaneously, incomprehensibly. All that mighty life. Contact on our bodies and minds. No wonder we seem to be going mad as a culture, as a world.

  7. [...] It’s a very interesting post, and I think that there is a lot to what she’s saying. After I read this, I thought about how much worse my fibro has gotten since I’ve been at work. I started pondering how the work itself isn’t stressful at all right now. They are being so good to me there. I’ve been given light work, I stay at a place that is peaceful and has wonderful energy, and I’m getting plenty of rest. Still, my body has been screaming, my exhaustion level is off the charts, and my brain’s been pretty foggy. [...]

  8. Kathryn says:

    Moonbeam, I think we’re onto something here!

  9. Retired Syd says:

    Wow, this post really resonated with me. Since I retired 2 months ago I have been hoarding alone-time. Mostly what I want to do is sit at my desk writing, stare out the window at the birds, or read a book or magazine outside. Everyone I know is very surprised about my current thirst for solitude–they all think I’m an extreme extrovert. I am extremely talkative–that’s why they have this impression. But it turns out I need a lot less time around people than most everyone thinks. I feel like I’m returning to my natural self. I was an only child and spent a lot of time alone (but never lonely), doing activities I loved by myself. Turns out I need a lot of time alone and I think I’m kind of making up for lost time now.

    I was struck by your observation that while you are not bothered by others’ perceptions of you, you do absorb those perceptions and judge and limit yourself. I find myself impatient with myself for not having “accomplished” anything, or for not even getting out of the house! But the truth is, this is making me very happy! It’s just that I’m looking at it through the perceptions of others and that’s what is making me impatient.

    Thanks for the new perspective!

  10. Kathryn says:

    Syd, you remind me of what my friend Leif said in an email a couple of weeks ago: “We need to hold to ourselves what we know to be ours.” That’s what you’re saying. I like our voices saying it together.

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