Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sunday Essay - the importance of quiet time in a crowded world

Sydney Chinese Garden This image from Neil Whitfield's Specials shows one aspect of Sydney's Chinese Gardens.

I don't know about you, but sometimes I really need quiet time, a separation in some way from the busy world around me. The more crowded life becomes the greater the need, but also the greater the difficulty.

I grew up in a relatively quiet world. Not quiet in an absolute sense, there were always bird noises, the sound of distant church bells, even the sometimes discordant notes of a local band practicing in the early morning. However, these were familiar sounds, comforting because they were familiar.

Now in a different world I am surrounded by sound. My children in particular live in a world of constant sound and activity. Youngest loves going for walks, but only so long as she has her ipod!

I sometimes find this very distracting, yet get swept with the flow. I work a lot alone - writing and thinking are by their nature often solitary activities - but my brain keeps up its own constant chatter. I have to make myself break away.

I stand to be corrected, but the need for quiet and some measure of private space seems to be a deeply human trait, as is the need for friendship and human interaction. We can see this in the emphasis placed on solitude - the hermit in the cave - in human religious beliefs. We can also see it in the way manners or architectural styles act to create personal space in crowded societies.

One of the curses of the modern world is time management. In teaching time management, something that I am better at teaching than doing, I have always tried to link this to personal objectives and needs. Yet in practice, time management always seems to come down to activity, trying to do more in less time. Quiet time is crowded out.

In H G Well's Love and Mr Lewisham, a book I read as a child and somehow have never got back to reading again, I was struck by his (Mr Lewisham's) methodical way of drawing up time tables to get best value from his time. I thought that if I did this too I could do a lot more.

I failed, just as Mr Lewisham failed. I know this. I know why. Yet I retain this constant need to try to do more, to keep going, to keep active. Just sitting, consciously withdrawing, sometimes even social participation, seems a waste of time. I know that I need to take quiet time to allow the brain to pause, the soul to recover. I know that I will be far better for it if I do. Somehow, it still seems wrong.

I don't really have an answer to this.

Gardening is good, because it actually provides quiet time in a way that I can justify as useful. It breaks the cycle. Meditation itself is sometimes helpful. However, the things that I find most helpful are linked in some way to my own conceptions of beauty and to things that I find interesting.

Put me in a Chinese garden or an art gallery, for example, and you are likely to lose me for some time. I also try to store memories in my mind that I can use again. Sitting in a particular church. A particular view. A particular garden.

I find, though, that I have to constantly refresh those memories or they lose their effect, crowded out by the present. This brings us back to my starting point, the need for quiet time in the first place. If I don't take that time, then ultimately I am the worse for it.


Nick Lancaster from Simplistic Thoughts kindly included this post in the list of resources at the end of a post he wrote on time management and life balance.


Anonymous said...

Jim, what a truly wonderful post. I can completely relate with you. Before my wife's illness, she used to spend hours in our small garden, and before my revision for the replaced hips, I used to help her too. Both of us now, cannot do much work in the garden, but you would remember my earlier post about our gardener. We give directions to him and he being from a farming stock, has green fingers.

Both of us together, and whenever I am at the computer, my wife alone, spend a lot of time just quietly sitting in our sit out adjoining the garden. Very often, I read quite a bit while there.

I had always thought of retirement to be like that, bar the health problems, and we have got it - more or less as we had hoped for.

Jim Belshaw said...

Ramana, I thought that this one might appeal to you! I do indeed remember the gardener. I still smoke, yes I know that it's a bad habit, so I go outside a fair bit to just sit.

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