What did the young Thailand boys do in 2018 to survive being stranded in a cave? They meditated and remained still to conserve their energy. What did famed psychologist Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, do in 1942 to survive Auschwitz? He meditated to take his mind away from the horror of prisoners dropping dead around him like flies.
Hopefully, you’re not stranded in a cave or imprisoned. But if you’re like most people, your version of the cave or camp is surviving daily pressures that can negatively affect your mental and physical health. Do you feel like you’re tethered to your smart phone? Do you work far more than forty or fifty hours a week? Do you eat fast food or vending machine snacks at your desk, skipping lunch altogether? Do you stay in constant contact with the job even on weekends, holidays, vacations, or forfeit your vacations to keep on working? Do you get nervous or jittery when you’re away from the office? If you answered yes to some of these questions, then it’s time for you to #CHILL.
Our 21st Century world culture places more value on doing than being. The more you can cram into your schedule and the faster you can get things done, the more worthy you are. As technology moves at lightning speed, outside pressures demand that you keep up with the breakneck pace. And many people—perhaps you’re one of them—have lost the ability to chill and to balance their lives. But as in Aesop’s Fable, The Hare and the Tortoise, we know that the tortoise won the race. Still, more people are burning out and finding themselves in the position of having to learn that lesson all over again. And at one time that included me.
I “Drank the Kool-Aide”
There was a time when I needed my work—and hid it from others— the way my alcoholic father needed and hid his bourbon. And just as I once tried to control my father’s drinking by pouring out his booze and refilling the bottle with vinegar, the people who loved me sulked, pleaded, and tore their hair out trying to keep me from working all the time. It’s only in hindsight that I say I was a workaholic. By this, I mean something quite different from saying that I worked hard. I mean that I used work to defend myself against unwelcome emotional states—to modulate anxiety, sadness, and frustration the way a pothead uses dope and an alcoholic uses booze.
The thought of a vacation or weekend without work was terrifying. I structured my life accordingly, and was rewarded for it. My spouse complained that I was never home but my university colleagues called me responsible and conscientious. My spouse called me controlling, inflexible, and incapable of living in the moment. But the promotions, accolades, and fat paychecks that came my way built an everstronger case against my spouse’s accusations, strengthening my denial.
I was a chain-smoking, caffeine-drinking work junkie, dogged by self-doubt. My life was crumbling under my feet, and there was nothing I could do about it. Or so I thought. My memory got so bad that members of my family wondered if I was developing early onset Alzheimer’s. I snapped at colleagues, lost weight, and didn’t care if I lived or died. Work had been the one thing I had always done well, and now even that was failing me. Yet I couldn’t stop working and hit bottom.
The Big #CHILL
Certain actions helped me climb out of the work stupor into a saner life, but I didn’t get there overnight. I discovered Workaholics Anonymous, entered therapy, and stumbled into yoga and meditation. But what ultimately brought me through the ordeal was the practice of mindfulness meditation—present moment attention to my feelings and a compassionate, nonjudgmental connection with myself.
As I started to slow down, much to my surprise, I discovered how much I relished the smell of cut grass, the sight of a hummingbird pollinating a flower, the feel of warm earth between my fingers. And I was amazed at how less reactive I was when things didn’t go my way and how small things didn’t seem as urgent.
I did some digging and found studies showing that just five minutes a day can make a big difference. Just five minutes of a daily practice that puts you in charge of your busy mind instead of it being in charge of you (such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, prayer, or inner contemplation) leads you to the state of what I call The Big #CHILL. This state can benefit you mentally and physically. It helps you stay centered, calm, and clear-minded. Your heart and respiratory rates slow down. Muscles loosen. And you have better sleep, increased immunity, lower blood pressure, improved digestion, and increased emotional well-being.
Neuroscientists point to the two branches of the autonomic nervous system for answers. The sympathetic nervous system is the gas or stress response. The parasympathetic nervous system is the brakes or rest and digest response that offsets the stress. To get through life, we need both gas and brakes. But most of us drive ourselves without brakes going eighty miles an hour and changing tires at the same time. If we were cars, we would be so burnt out that we’d be hauled off to the junk heap.
The Big #CHILL isn’t just something you do like taking a nap, kicking back and watching the football game, or running your daily mile or two. Although that’s a small part, there’s more to it. #CHILL is a perspective—a mindful way of being present in the world, a byproduct of finding stillness inside. You become drawn from the inside out instead of driven from the outside in. When you’re driven, you’re a slave to external circumstances and demands such as hurrying, rushing, and doing. When you’re drawn, you master your life from its center. You know you’re in the Big #CHILL when you feel one or more of the following “C” words: curious, calm, clear, confident, courageous, connectedness, compassion, and creative. You can use these 8 “C” words to become intentional about “being” or “slowing down” instead of “doing” or “speeding up.” It would be a mistake to think that you can live in a perpetual state of Big #CHILL. But the more you practice 5 minutes of stilling your busy mind and center on the quiet places within yourself, the more you can access the Big #CHILL state, even in times of upheaval.
The idea of #CHILL might sound like a buzz kill—even counterproductive, but it actually gives you a natural high of oneness, enabling you to find your sweet spot between doing and being. The Italians call the Big #CHILL state, “il dolce far niente.” It doesn’t translate in the United States, where tasks and schedules define us. The closest translation we have is “The sweetness of doing nothing.” The practice of doing nothing is good medicine. It puts on the brakes and gives our bodies and minds a chance to slow down. In those slower moments—that might seem empty and needless—what has been there all along in some embryonic form is given space and comes to life. Doing nothing is like the pauses that are integral to a beautiful piece of music. Without absences of sound, music would be just noise. Doing nothing provides an incubation period for your work ideas to hatch.
There are 1440 minutes in one day. Just five minutes of #CHILL still leaves you 1,435 minutes to live in a calmer, healthier, and more productive way. So take time to watch the grass grow, feel a soft breeze on your cheeks, and smell the flowers you zip pass on a daily basis. Take time to mindfully eat and taste each morsel of food. Listen to the buzzing bee outside your window. Life happens in the present, not in regrets of the past or worries of the future.
May you find that sweet spot where job success and personal and intimate fulfillment reside side by side—where you know more about special times without the imperative, with idle moments when you have nothing to rush to, fix, or accomplish. And where you can gift yourself with being present in each moment without judgment and enjoy the sweetness of nothing to do but savor the Big #CHILL, no matter how challenging the circumstances.
Dr. Bryan E. Robinson is a licensed psychotherapist and Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His newest book is entitled #CHILL: Turn off Your Job and Turn on Your Life (William Morrow Hardcover; on sale: 12/31/18). He currently has a blog on Psychology Today called “The Right Mindset.” He has been interviewed by Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among countless other magazines. Robinson’s prior books have been published into thirteen different languages including Arabic, Korean, French, Italian, and Japanese. Visit him at www.bryanrobinsonbooks.com.