Surprisingly, my current job means I have a lot of down time. I am traveling a crazy amount and living part time in another country, but I have few friends there or any regular activities. I also spend a lot of time waiting: waiting for trains, busses, planes, and colleagues. Down time that you didn’t plan on can be less relaxing and more boring than I’d hoped.
I am gone for a month at a time, and I find myself a bit starved for entertainment. On the first trip, I read four books and listened to two audio books. I read another four this time, even though I was busier than before. I tortured myself through German television, and I downloaded some movies which I ended up watching twice. Yet I still find myself bored. Except, there is plenty I could be doing; writing more interesting blog postings for example, and I am not doing them.
I think the problem is that I, like most everyone in modern society, am a victim of over-stimulation. I’ve always been a procrastinator and multi-tasker, but recent studies are claiming that actually, multi-taskers aren’t nearly as effective as they think they are. Other studies are showing that all the structured play children engage in, from soccer practice to music lessons, without any time to roam around unsupervised and act like idiots gives them little opportunity to develop what is known as “executive control.” Many think this contributes to attention deficit disorder (ADD) and general unruliness of modern kids–and adults. I had plenty of unstructured play as a kid, but I suspect that executive control isn’t a skill learned once and for all; it requires some practice.
I run. Well, let’s be honest, I try to run, because I can’t bring my bike with me, and I imagine I would like to do something impressive like running really far sometime. In fact, though, I hate running and don’t do it nearly enough. I make the excuse that it’s because I was in one country last week and another this one. When I (finally get around to) run, I find the activity meditative. I thought about bringing a music player with me, but the ear plugs kept falling out of my sweaty ears (gross) so I decided it wasn’t worth it. Then I realized that this could be the point. Running can be pretty boring. There’s no TV, no music (in my case), not much scenery, and it’s likely you’ve seen it already (and if you haven’t, why are you running past it? Stop and take a look!) You are alone with the rhythm of your breath and your feet hitting the trail. You can concentrate on your form, or the painful stitch in your side, or you can just zone out and let your mind empty out, filled again by your breathing (or gasping, in my case, but filled with breathing was more poetic.)
Paul Theroux writes in an essay in Fresh Air Fiend that the isolation of travel was key to him becoming an author. Being alone and an outsider and having no phone, television, electricity, or facebook, flickr, or e-mail, gave him time to think. Running may not be exercise for my legs and lungs alone. It may be the much needed exercise for my brain. It takes some serious effort, to switch off. To grow accustomed to not being entertained. To let your brain do its job and think, all by itself. To see what comes out after being filled with air alone.