“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
– Henry David Thoreau
I was thinking about thinking.
It wasn’t in an idle moment, staring out the window or at the wall. It was while I was practicing piano.
At first I rejected the experience. “You’re not supposed to think while you play piano,” I reasoned. “It’s like meditation. You’re supposed to just play, just be.”
But then I noticed it happen, again and again. Not active thinking (“What should I make for lunch today?”), but passive thinking (images of that one time I said that stupid thing).
My piano practice sessions, currently around 2 hours a day, are filled with passing images and impressions. While I play music and concentrate deeply (because I AM concentrating), these images come and go, a constant slideshow. I don’t pay much attention. My attention is on the music. But I started thinking about it afterward.
My mind is doing all of this vital processing while I’m practicing piano. Kind of like how your mind processes your life via sleep and dreams – my piano practice sessions are an extension of that.
Life is full of difficult, complex problems. The kind that can’t be solved in five minutes. Where should I live? Should I travel or settle down? Should I have another child? What would be the best living environment for my current child? Should I chase that crazy dream? How would it play out in reality? I’m swimming in these problems, just like everyone else.
These problems need time to stew and simmer and bubble. I think about them actively sometimes, but mostly I just let them run in the background. Like when I’m practicing piano. All my problems, major and minor, cycle in the background when I’m engaged in other, more physical, actions.
I thought about other times my thoughts simmer. When I’m doing yoga. I’m breathing, I’m in my body, I’m in the moment, and yet I’m aware of all these background processes in my mind’s system. Floating on by, barely noticeable unless I go looking for them.
Going for walks without audiobooks or podcasts. Sitting in a waiting room without a phone. Driving a car without listening to anything. Observing my daughter play. Taking a shower. The time it takes to fall asleep.
These are precious pockets.
This weekend I had an entire day to myself, since Michael took our daughter to the lake with his family. It was a rare treat. By the end of the day, my mind was feeling so loose and free. Unwound. The day was spent in simple pursuits – piano, a creative project, some songwriting, yoga, lots of reading – but those simple pursuits gave my mind some space. Some air. I was alive in the doing, full of ideas, and so completely relaxed from it.
I’ve been thinking about how we cram the seconds of our day with input. How output is important, like writing this post or tinkering with songwriting. But also how important the space between input and output is. How the simmering of your mental soup makes for a delicious life.
As the day wore on and I pleasantly unwound, I realized how I tend to pack my days with doing, with input. Podcasts on walks and drives and when I cook. I love podcasts, they connect me and light me up. But what about a little silence sometimes? I thought about my tendency to pull out my laptop at night and get in a little more work, instead of having a short yoga session. How hard it is to practice piano sometimes, but how it ends up being the best spice of all for my mind.
I thought about how I used to be. Teenager Allysia, early-20s Rock Band Allysia. I was open, I was unwound. I didn’t stuff my life with doing. I didn’t even get a smartphone until I was 24. I was art, art, art.
My life is better now, and I’m much happier in my 30s than I was in my 20s. My life is consistently getting more enjoyable. While I tend to don the rose-colored glasses for my past, I have to remind myself that, though I was art, I was also untethered.
But my fondness for the past isn’t for the drama and shenanigans of being young. It’s for the way I used to think. Open, free, with room to roam. Now, a decade later, I have to remind myself to let my mind out of its box once in a while. To come out to play.
I can’t blame smartphones for everything, and I can’t blame growing up. There’s no blame at all. It’s just change. If I could have the open mind of my old self, and the good sense of my new self, then that would really be something. I can paint a square. I can make the time.