How School Screws Things Up For "Real Life"
On the Power of Solitude

"Stand Still When the Hippos Charge"

Yesterday I read a wonderful Change This Manifesto on The Zen of Business: 7 Habits of the Highly Creative by Matthew May. I'm currently in what I'm referring to as "creative recovery" (otherwise known as AA for creatives) so these habits really struck a chord with me.

One of my favorites on the list is the habit of "Seijaku" or stillness, solitude, quietude. It is the habit of learning to quiet your mind, designating a place and time for creative solitude. In other words, "stand still when the hippos charge," advice from National Geographic journalist Boyd Matson.

As luck would have it, when I opened up Typepad to start this post, I saw that someone had visited a post I wrote a few years ago about The Tyranny of Now. In it, I lamented the fact that I was responding to the "nowness" set for me by my email and my ringing phone and the clamor of unread items in my feed reader. In other words, the hippos were charging around me and I was running for my life.

This is an issue that has plagued me off and on for awhile now, so lately I've been trying to create for myself moments of creative solitude.

I start my day with Morning Pages, a practice of writing 3 pages of stream of consciousness, just to empty your brain. What I've found is that each morning, as soon as I open my eyes, I'm flooded with the things I didn't complete the day before and the things I MUST do today. By emptying my brain of these worries, I create in myself a stillness that allows me to get to my "to do's" with less anxiety and more focus.

I have also designated another room in my house--NOT my home office--as the place to go when I need to get some space from my work. This quite literally changes the dynamic for me as it is a room that's off limits to my laptop and phone. When I enter it, it says that I'm setting a boundary between me and technology that I will not violate while I'm in there. It's helped tremendously in getting my brain to shift from the Tyranny of Now when I need it to.

The other practice I'm working on happens to be one that is in May's Manifesto--the idea of "Datsuzoku" or taking a break from routine. May points out that our bodies and brains work in 90-minute "pulses" or rhythms:

When we're awake, we move from higher to lower alertness every 90 minutes. And here's the thing: our bodies clearly signal that rhythm in the form of restlessness, hunger, drowsiness and loss of focus. Generally we either ignore or overrride these signals, because we have a lot to do and many ways to artificially pump up our energy with various supplements. The problem is that after working at high intensity for more than 90 minutes, our brains begin to shut down. We become more reactive and less capable of thinking clearly, creatively and reflectively or seeing the big picture.

I've most definitely noticed this in myself and have been trying to pay closer attention to the signals my brain and body give me that it's time for a break. This isn't always easy--I have to fight with myself to NOT keep going. There's something that says I'm being "weak" or "unproductive" if I don't push through. But in reality when I honor what my brain and body are telling me, I'm actually MORE productive. It's funny what can happen if we just stop and listen.

So what do you do when the hippos charge? Do you stand still? And how do you do that?


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Lovely to hear you have been taking time for yourself and creative process.

As far as dealing with hippos--- seems like the struggle of the ages. I find it hard to convince myself not to fight off the hippos first to 'make space' for the creative. Of course I'm often exhausted after the hippo battle, or they have called in the rest of the family and the day is gone.

I have been making space for yoga and pilates several days a week, and that always helps. Slows down the auto hippo response mechanisms and at least gives me a chance to think about whether I want to mount a fight or not.

Well it seems my "fight or flight" response is being triggered as soon as I open my eyes, so I'm trying to arrest it before it gets started. I'm also doing The Artist's Way with a group of like-minded folks here and that's helping to see that 1) I'm not alone and 2) I really have some issues. :-)

One thing I"m bad at is doing things for/with my body (like yoga, etc.) and that's something I need to get back into. You are definitely my role model for that, Christine, because you are MUCH better at it.

Someone was just telling me about The Artist's Way yesterday.
Did you finish? How was it?

I really find the 90 minute reset idea interesting and quite accurate. Thanks for a great post.

I'm working through the Artist's Way now with a group, Michael--great bunch of people. We meet every other week downtown and it's gotten really intense. We're discussing continuing with the rest of Julia Cameron's books after we get through this because the group has been so great. I definitely encourage you to read it and work through the exercises, especially if you're in a creative slump!

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