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Editor’s note: Guest post by Stephen Martin

The summer when I was 23 did not begin well.

For one thing, I was pretty lost. My longtime girlfriend was moving cross-country for law school, and I didn’t have a clue what my next move would be, except that I wasn’t going with her. For another, I was bordering on broke. My contract work at the nearby university had just ended, and I had not a single job prospect. And yet, 16 years later I look back on that summer as one of the best of my life.

Perhaps the biggest reason why: I gave up the news.

It was a grand summer for news, too. Clinton and Dole duking it out for the presidency, mad cow hysteria in Europe, the Olympics in Atlanta. I knew next to nothing about any of it. With no income, I needed to economize. That meant no cable TV, no Internet, not even a newspaper. I barely knew what was happening across the street, much less around the world. And it didn’t bother me because, after years of faithfully reading papers and magazines, I was just tired of it.

Even back in those pre-Twitter, pre-blog, pre-historic days, you could spend enormous amounts of time consuming news or fretting all day about it, and I’d done a lot of both. But now, accidentally adrift from the headlines, I suddenly had time for other things.

I started hanging out in the university library, wandering the stacks and picking up whatever books caught my eye. I’d meet a buddy for a (very cheap) lunch or play cards or listen to music. I went for long walks. Since I never got a weather forecast, what the heavens might bring was always a surprise too.

Free of the usual distractions, I slowly became more centered. I’d spent the previous year exploring and rejecting a half-dozen potential careers.

In the silence of that summer, though, I finally began to feel a faint sense of purpose – a pull toward writing.

I didn’t know what I wanted to write or for whom. But sitting down and writing, longhand, an essay about a monastery I’d once visited created more satisfaction than I’d felt in months, if not years.

The summer crawled on in slow motion, and I began to feel part of it. I hadn’t really noticed the seasons since I was a kid. But now, I started paying attention to the relative cool of a July morning, the building humidity as noon approached, the sticky air and soothing insect chatter of an August evening. For the first time in a long time, I felt aware.

And as the summer burned toward its conclusion, I became aware of something else as well: I was running out of money.

That’s how I ended up taking a job – yes, this is true – in the news business.

At the end of the summer I moved from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., where news never sleeps. Except for people like me.

One afternoon in early September I mentioned to a buddy that I would be driving to Pennsylvania the next day to see my folks. “But what about the hurricane?” he asked. “What hurricane?” I said, truly befuddled. It was Hurricane Fran, which ended up devastating the city from which I’d just moved and nearly blew my car off the interstate in Maryland. At that point, I decided it might be smart to start following the news again. I haven’t stopped since.

But sometimes I think I should.

News and especially the smart phones, iPads and social media that deliver it to us relentlessly are as addictive as cigarettes and sugar. They bloat you on worthless mental calories that warp your perceptions and pander to your fears. Some will say it’s our responsibility as citizens to follow the news. To some extent it is.

It’s also our responsibility to know who we are, to figure out what inspires us and what to do about it.

Getting there requires serious inner work and reflection and conversations with wise people. That’s hard and sometimes scary work. It also calls for two things in short supply these days – time and silence.

I’m convinced that everyone has a contemplative dimension to their personalities, an innate craving to still our minds – and that we benefit spiritually, emotionally and mentally from heeding that call.

It’s true that finding solitude is tougher than it was in 1996. There’s even more news sources now and the technology for delivering it to us gets more sophisticated by the day.

Still, it is within our power to turn off the phone and TV and computer once we’ve done whatever legitimate work we need to do. Let go of the news for a day or two. Maybe even a week. The longer you can go without knowing what’s going on in the world, the better you’ll feel about it – and yourself. And the latest can’t-miss headline will always be waiting when you come back.

Stephen Martin is a speechwriter and journalist who blogs at www.messyquest.com. His first book The Messy Quest for Meaning, which explores how to find a calling and tap into potential, will be released by Sorin Books in May 2012.

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14 Responses to Finding the Space to Quiet Your Mind

  1. We should not forget about news however, news’ headlines most are negative. We rarely see positive news on newspaper (there’s but probably at the little corner). I don’t in other part of country, but in my country, Malaysia, most news are negative (politics, murders, etc.) That’s why I skip news since 2 years ago.

    I swift my mind and read self improvement books and personal development stuff. It’s addictive and positive too :)

    p/s: just my 2 cents, it is just me that felt news are negative – do not take my advice.

    Cheers,
    Dennis.

    • Hi Dennis — thanks for reading. As you noted, it’s much better to be addicted to something positive! Since you like personal development books, check out Jonah Lehrer’s new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Reading it right now — great stuff.

  2. Everything doesn’t have to be loud for it to matter. Sometimes the most necessary thing you can do for yourself is to shut up and think. :)

    • Well said, Glori. A number of visits I’ve made to Trappist monasteries, where silence is the key to sparking new insights, have convinced me that you’re right.

  3. Stephen, I can understand the desire to avoid the news. Like Dennis, I feel the headlines do tend to be more “negative” or “sensationalized” that we really need. About the only stories I truly care about anymore are what most people call the “fluff” pieces that usually appear late in the second segment of the newscasts that tend to be the more inspirational pieces of the newscast. Well, that, and I’ll keep an eye on the weather. And local sports, if the teams are doing well.

    At the same time, I think I am too heavily involved in “entertainment”. I could use some “decompression” time, though for me to go a week or more without internet, tv, and phone might be challenging, but just might be what I need.

    Thanks for sharing your great post!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Grady. It’s way harder now than it was back in 1996 to avoid news, but it’s still possible. A month or so ago, I did manage to do a long weekend without checking work e-mail or looking at any news. It was incredibly refreshing. Give it a try — and let me know how it goes!

    • On
    • April 11, 2012 at 9:58 pm
    • Portia
    • Said...

    Stephen,as a self-prescribed news junkie I couldn’t agree with you more. I spent so many years in the PR business that staying plugged into the news (confession – I’m watching Rachel Maddow as I write this!) is second nature. That said, I recognize that I need to unplug to create white space for myself. I try to give myself a newsfast on the weekends and at least one day a week. I do find that I’m so much more centered and calm when I’m not constantly reading the headlines. Thanks for the gentle prod that we could all live more fully if we just kicked our news junkie habits. I’ll keep working on this.

    • Thanks, Portia. It’s always inspiring to hear about other people’s efforts to unplug for a while — and helpful to know how they’re doing it. I just spent a few days in New York City, and somehow managed to avoid news the entire time. It was great!

    • On
    • April 12, 2012 at 11:46 am
    • JustMe
    • Said...

    This is a fantastically delicious post. I live in the burbs around DC where it is a constant barrage of news, and to make matters worse my husband is a news junkie and likes to repeat it all to me again over dinner. Sometimes I go to visit my dad (who retired and moved back to the farm he grew up on) and he will want to talk about politics. I always say, “Dad, I come here to get away from that for just a little while.” For me everything slows down when I’m there, I can walk down a country road and not worry about getting run over, I can eat a meal without feeling compelled to hurry to the next thing, I can just breathe and be me. Its heaven.

    • Nobody’s ever described my cooking or my writing as “fantastically delicious.” Thanks for the kind words! Spending time on a farm every once in a while sounds like a wonderful idea. Glad you’re taking advantage of it.

    • On
    • April 13, 2012 at 10:59 am
    • Laura K
    • Said...

    Thanks for the post, Stephen!

    We humans really don’t like being uncomfortable or in pain – that’s why plugging in and turning on anything loud feels good. We don’t have to sit quietly with those nagging feelings or sad contemplations.

    We can dig a hole in the media and put our heads in it.

    But as you said, giving yourself the space to sit quietly and actually be aware can bring great results. Cultivating mindfulness and self-awareness can help weather any storm – and can also provide that compass when we do delve into awareness of the bigger world.

    I’m learning that myself right now.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Laura. You’re absolutely right — the all-encompassing reach of media plays to a lot of our worst instincts. Best of luck with your efforts. Recently, I’ve started doing 15 or 20 minutes a day of meditation, and it’s a great way to slow down even if I couldn’t get away from the news that day.

  4. Great post. I canceled my newpaper subscription years ago. I don’t watch the news. I occasionally check out the headlines on CNN, but that’s it. As one of my favorite lines goes, whenever I do check the news, “The world situation was desperate as usual.” That’s from Another Roadside Attaction, much better reading than the news!

    • Love that quote, Galen — and good for you for taking a stand!