A few years ago, I had a recurring nightmare that I was being swallowed up by New York City, the dizzying megalopolis I used to call home. The feeling paralleled a fainting episode: the cacophony around me began to retreat into a dulled echo; I felt light-headed and clammy before plunging into a free fall when blackness would hit. With the descent—with the sudden quiet and sensation of being swept into oblivion—came profound physical relief, as if I was returning to breath, the source of life.
I didn’t need a psychologist to deconstruct how these episodes were indicative of stress occurring during my conscious hours. My life was hectic and harried, not an uncommon state to find oneself in. Like many urbanites, I was frantically active in a way that swallowed up the existence of a meaningful inner life, almost as if I had been afraid to have one. By keeping myself busy, I could be safely sealed in a pseudo-collective trance alongside my fellow commuters and neighbors, all of us escaping our own demons on some level, gliding along on a wash of adrenaline and trying to make ends meet. I was one of those go-getter types, always fixated on what was next in my conquests—whether it be the next rung on the career ladder, the next exotic travel destination, or the next romantic encounter. I’d turned into an unapologetic overachiever, with no intention of slowing down: I was exclusively focused on the future, not on the present, as if the abundance I chased would dissolve if I stilled myself.
I was frantically active in a way that swallowed up the existence of a meaningful inner life, almost as if I had been afraid to have one
It’s no surprise that my relationship with my inner world was estranged, and a whole host of events forced me to have a spiritual reckoning of sorts, including a parental death, a heart-wrenching break-up and a deepening dissatisfaction with my humanitarian career, which had started to feel less impactful than it had in my early thirties. It all made me want to retreat into myself for the first time in a very long while. I’d started to realize that a harried life undermined meaningful living. Inhabiting the world with heightened awareness, with consciousness, and with an intractable connection to the deeper self is critical to any kind of healing we need to do as humans during our short gestation here, and I hadn’t been doing that. Suddenly, slowing down and being mindful was the only thing that mattered to the entire fabric of my being, and yet I was confronted with this sense that something huge was missing: if I was going to venture onto a healing path, and have the regenerating experience I was longing for, I needed the space to do it.
In Japan, there is a word for what I was longing for: yutori, or spaciousness. That’s what I was after. Perhaps we all experience this need, but we don’t know how to articulate it outside of ourselves, or feel selfish asking for it as we are conditioned to think that the more we do, the more we have, the better off we are. We are juggling so much and we fear that if we remove even a single thing, our whole balancing act—or the illusion of it—will get irrevocably disrupted. Time is sacred and yet we fill it to capacity, leaving little space for our bodies and souls to recharge or digest anything. When our need for space becomes unyielding, it’s usually brought on by events that send us reeling on an emotional level. And yet we are entitled to spaciousness like we are entitled to breath; we need it in order to unfold our beings, to understand ourselves more, to learn to listen to inner wisdom, to grow emotionally and spiritually, to create, to self-actualize. If we don’t get the space we need to grow, what might start out as a soft clamor becomes a full-on outcry, as in my case.
I made the decision to leave New York, because I was in a position where I could. I wanted to go where I didn’t know anyone, and to be surrounded by vast natural landscapes, so I went from a cozy and crowded Brooklyn apartment to spending nearly a year journeying around from the Kerala backwaters to the Sicilian countryside to the savannahs of Tanzania. Indulgent? Sure. But it was also brave, because I left a secure job and the comfort of a known community behind me with nothing but a meager savings to bask in this crucial, life-affirming thing called spaciousness: I was naming it, claiming it, allowing myself to feel entitled to it, and actively seeking it in large quantities, understanding on some deep level that it was essential to my recovery.
We are entitled to spaciousness like we are entitled to breath; we need it in order to unfold our beings, to understand ourselves more, to learn to listen to inner wisdom, to grow emotionally and spiritually, to create, to self-actualize.
On this journey—which I liken to an ‘exercise in mindfulness’—my life no longer felt crunched up and tight like an accordion but stretched out. Most obvious was the physical sensation of space, when I’d stood at the summit of the Fossi di Vulcano, for example, and looked into the enormous crater, or when I careened around in a Range Rover in the Selous Game Reserve, surrounded by miles and miles of endless savannah flecked with wild animals. But even mentally, my daily approach of loose scheduling (if I had one at all) meant I wasn’t clamping down on everything. There was nothing to rush for or to, which meant I could breathe for what felt like the first time in my adult life. My agenda was open like my surroundings, which lent itself to a sense of possibility: by allowing myself unstructured space, time took on a loose and elastic quality. It was no longer something I had to be on top off or try to grasp, but rather something I could work with, and meld around the way I was existing. After all, it was Einstein himself who called time an illusion. Most significantly, it was the spaciousness I’d allowed myself that helped me to tend to that powerful presence inside all of us, the one that is constant but often feels evasive during our daily lives.
I’m extremely grateful that I was able to wander off into the wilderness to discover what spaciousness feels like. Upon returning to the states, I’ve done my best to pare down wherever possible so I can create room for a different kind of abundance in my life and a new way of existing. I started re-evaluating some of my commitments so I’m not over-booking myself. I’ve been waking up a bit early to have that time to myself before my busy day begins. My meditation practice is marked as ‘unstructured space’ in my calendar so I can feel the freedom to do whatever I want with that half hour or hour in the morning. Now, I like to kick off the morning with a pot of tea, and some freestyle journaling—nothing too complex and demanding. Maybe I’ll meditate, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just water the plants or read or go for a run. I take technology breaks throughout the day, where possible, which creates a huge sense of spaciousness. Even if I am on deadline for something, I often turn off my phone, leave the house and go for a half hour walk in the woods. I come back feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, having re-filled my creative reserves.
I think of the little towns in Sicily or India I traveled through during my months away: the pace was otherworldly. There was no rush; time felt malleable and copious. People were engaged and conversational and present; the most magnetic ones were often not ambitious in the same way as we are in the United States. While they were hard-working, there was an evident, unspoken belief system that a slower life is a better life, that less is more, that life does not need to be complicated and packed, that all we really need is good food and potable water, family and community, a roof over our heads, to be able to enjoy the bounty of nature—the riches of the sea or the mountains, for example—and a little bit of space, so that we can just sit with ourselves, and be fully present in this life that we have the magic of being a part of before it slips through our fingertips.
Noticing self-perpetuating thought patterns is a core mindfulness skill. Take a moment to examine how it feels to disengage from a busy mind and shift into “being” mode. Read More