Peace of Mind

Stress Reduction on Ten Dollars a Day

         Years ago, before the best beaches of Baja California were completely covered with condos and hotels, some friends and I used to flee our high stress lives and drive down there and camp. We drove for days to get to where the pavement ended, and then for good measure we spent another few hours bouncing along the worst dirt roads we could find, hoping to outdistance more casual vacationers before the beers exploded in the back. Finally, we’d park and unload and get down to the serious business of doing nothing.

         It took days to adjust to what we called Baja time, but being where there was nothing to do but explore, fish, and read, it was inevitable.

         “Wanna do some snorkeling?”

         (Five minute pause) “Yeah, sure, let’s go.”

         (Five minute pause) “Go where?”

         We transitioned from a sense of wasting time to one of taking time. We hardly recognized ourselves. We vowed to integrate this new sense of calm into the real world.

         Fun was had, fingernails grew back, ulcers healed. Within days of getting back to work, though, nervous tics had reappeared and pencil tips were snapping left and right. We spent the year cracking our knuckles and looking ahead to the next trip.

         This is the kind of thinking that makes the leisure travel industry do happy little backflips. They’re thrilled to let us think that the only way to loosen up is to fly far away from our daily distractions. That classic image of the vacationer staring out to sea from her beach chair isn’t really selling her the beach. It’s selling the idea of doing nothing and being happy about it. For a whole lot of money, she could even rent a small private island with no sign of civilization. The more nothing you want, the more expensive it gets.

         We’re conditioned to feel stressed out. Everybody talks about how their jobs are stressful, even if they’re not. It can be a fun social bonding thing and I catch myself at it. “How’s your day?” “Stressful.” “Mine too, these people drive me nuts.” “Amen. Say, perhaps some alcoholic beverages will take the edge off and allow us to complain in more detail.” “Why, that’s the kind of thinking that makes the alcohol industry do happy little backflips. Meet you at five.”

         Such kvetching may seem harmless, but it counts as negative thinking and contributes to an overload of stress. A little stress is normal and goes by different names, like motivation or alertness. But it can snowball to unhealthy levels, and for a while I had real problems with it.

         Then I learned a simple thing that truly changed my life: the best way to relax is to just relax. No distant beach required. Find a calm place and sit down and shut up for at least ten minutes. It reboots your system and keeps stress from spiraling out of sight. It’s hard for the first few minutes, because the second you release your mind it says “Get up! There are fourteen things you haven’t finished.” But if you hang in there, things settle down. It’s really simple and it works and it’s free. But in our wacky consumer culture, we don’t place much value on free things.

         I know people who will tell you that they don’t have time for breaks, but they have time for yoga and massage and spas and the gym. Not to knock these activities, but I suspect these people are so wound up that they have to pay somebody to make them stop talking. People seem really uncomfortable with unstructured peace and quiet. If they find they have a moment for reflection, like say while driving, they get on the cell phone. I even hear people in public bathroom stalls on the phone, where everybody else gets to eavesdrop, like it or not.

         “Hey, it’s me… Nothing, what are you doing?”

         The “sit down and shut up” relaxation technique described above grew from my years of experience with meditation, an activity I credit with changing my life in profound ways despite the fact that I’m not very good at it. Meditation is challenging and time consuming, and over time I drifted into a lazy “bang for the buck” mentality, suspecting that there was a system of diminishing returns at work here. I found that the first ten minutes or so did wonders for me in terms of calm and health, but additional time produced philosophical insights that helped me understand the nature of man while at the same time making me an insufferable bore at parties.

         Lots of people have gotten into meditation. In the free enterprise system, any group of people with a similar interest is called a “market” filled with possible “consumers.” Predictably, an industry has popped up to sell you back your own peace of mind. I just did a web search and got 38,900 matches for the phase “meditation supplies.” This cracks me up. You don’t need to buy a damn thing to meditate. I wonder how many people never tried it because they were worried about the startup costs.

         But hey, if shopping calms you down enough to attempt meditation, you’re in the right town. Start with the bubbling water sculpture, a dozen candles, some sandalwood incense, and Japanese flute CDs. Oh, and don’t forget a variety of chotchkes from the mysterious East, the hemisphere generally credited with inventing spiritual calmness. Load up with a Yin-Yang doormat, the Ganesh action figure, and wouldn’t that singing prayer bowl make a cute doorbell?

         At last, you have what you need to achieve a state of meditation so deep that you can forget about your VISA bill, or at least look like you do.