Thinking About Nothing

Sometimes there is so much stuff in my head—the two TV shows I keep up with, the three books I’m usually reading, the plots of my own books, marketing strategies, ideas for new stories, the classes I teach, when we’re going to move all the boxes of books I’ve packed for the library—and I really just want to think about nothing for a while.

I have tried meditation. The nearest success I had was about twenty-five years ago, during a yoga class. After leading us through a series of postures designed to constrict and then release the blood flow through vital glands, our instructor would wait for us to settle into shavasana—our gently exercised bodies covered with a light blanket—and lead us through a ten to fifteen-minute meditation.

Usually, we would start by tensing various muscles and letting them go, moving from the feet all the way up to our heads. Then our instructor might talk us through a visual landscape or encourage us to build one ourselves. Then we’d do some finger wriggling and blinking, roll over, and sit up, apparently refreshed.

Shavasana (otherwise known as “corpse pose”) can be very refreshing. I’m a huge fan of lying down and being covered by a blanket. But I always had a lot of trouble following the meditation part. My mind tended to wander. The one time I did manage to stay with the instructor’s voice was actually kind of frightening. I “woke up” up suddenly with a memory of a black and yellow place and with the feeling of having been suspended between the known and unknown.

I’ve always thought of the incident as a pretty good illustration of my struggle to let go. I’m not very good at letting go. At the beginning of a yoga class, when we’re encouraged to empty our minds, I’m usually going over my to-do list. When we’re lying down, letting the thoughts that snag pull free, I’m usually plotting the next chapter I want to write. Or the next book. Or thinking about my characters. Or wondering what’s for lunch.

Often, at night, I’ll wake up sometime after midnight and lie there for two to four hours, thinking. I try to think about nothing or to tell myself some sort of bedtime story. To let my mind wander, snagging sometimes, but pulling free, and it’s so danged hard. I’ll think about the movie I just saw, a character type I’d like to explore, about the fact my daughter plans to go away to college next year. I’ll wonder if I remembered to close the oven at the bagel shop (where I work afternoons) and if the cats have food and water. Did I forget to put a muffin in that last customer’s bag? Do I have everything I need for the Teen Writers’ group I’m teaching tomorrow night? Oh, and you know what would work for that scene I was struggling with this morning…?

Sometimes I just get up and read for a while. Filling my head with someone else’s words is usually a good way to quiet my own thoughts for long enough for me to fall asleep. But all these thoughts are still there in the morning.

I’ve tried morning pages and I’ve had some success with them—in that they do serve as a good way to get all this stuff out of my head and onto paper at least. I often find solutions to problems that nag at me by writing them down, including my feelings about an issue and questions to myself about what I can do about it. I also do a lot of plotting and planning in my morning pages.

I try to go for a walk every day and usually listen to an audiobook as I circle the neighborhood. It’s about the closest I get to thinking about nothing on a day-to-day basis, but not always successful. Sometimes my mind will wander and I’ll have to restart a chapter and listen to it again. It’s amazing how much I can miss, too. It will be as though I’ve never heard the words before.

Interestingly enough, however, I cannot sit and listen to an audiobook. I have to be doing something or in motion. I can be driving, traveling as a passenger, walking, mowing the lawn, or cleaning the house. I cannot do a jigsaw puzzle and listen. I can color and listen.

But, back to my quest for nothingness—when I sat down to write this, I planned to share the one thing that worked, but when I got to this part of the ramble, I realized there are two things, but only one I can do year round. The first is for summer only: lying on the beach. I usually take a book to the beach with me, but my favorite thing to do (aside from riding the waves) is to lie in the sun and listen to the sounds of people playing in the water. The vague crunch of bare feet against the sand. The sigh of the wind over the sea, and the roll and hiss of the waves. People talking. All the different music. I find all that listening extremely restful.

The thing that works year-round is going hiking. While I often listen to audio books on my daily walks, I leave my headphones behind when I’m on the trail. Instead, I do the same thing I do on the beach: I listen. To the leaves crunching under my feet and the wind through the trees. The skitter and chitter of forest animals. The rush and trickle of water. Other hikers talking to each other, or their dogs. The sound of the world taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.

Or maybe that’s just me.

I look at the color of the bark on the trees and the different shapes of the leaves. I make note of the mushrooms growing alongside the trail. I look for flowers, especially in the spring, and interesting patterns in the fallen leaves during the fall. I’ve hiked through snow, counting the different sets of tracks crossing my path. I’ve hiked in the summer when it’s ninety degrees and all I want to do is take off my shoes so I can stick my toes in the creek.

But I especially love hiking when the air is cold and the sun is warm. Just last week I hiked to the top of Mount Tammany in New Jersey. It was thirty-seven degrees when I started out and pretty chilly. But when I got to the top of the mountain, the sun broke properly through the clouds and bathed my face in this incredible warmth. It felt almost unreal. It also felt joyous. The only way I can think to describe it is… okay, you know that scene in The Sound of Music where Maria is up in the hills spinning around and swinging her arms out? Of course you do. There are a million gifs of it on Twitter. I felt like that. I’d climbed a mountain, the sun was shining on my face, and I felt amazing! Happy, light, purposeful, refreshed. And guess what was going through my mind?

Absolutely nothing.

So you can see why the idea of meditation fascinates me. I’ve heard that successfully meditating for ten minutes can be like an hour of sleep. That being able to empty your mind and relax like that will add years to your life. It seems like the perfect way to combat stress. But all that sitting … I just can’t.

Maybe not all meditation is about sitting still or necessarily traveling somewhere in your mind. Maybe for some of us, thinking about nothing requires a little more something. For me, it seems either my body or someone else’s has to be in motion. For me to clear my mind, I have to listen to something—either the sound of someone else’s story, the world moving on without me, or that not-quiet quiet of the forest.

I don’t have to climb a mountain every time, but the view is so often worth it. And then, on the way back down the other side, when I’m drawing close to the parking lot and thoughts of what I need to do for the rest of the day start to filter through, I can think about posts like this where I can at least talk about thinking about nothing for a little while.

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The view from the top of Mount Tammany.

To view more of my hiking photos, visit my Flickr gallery.

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