Stillness. It’s What Your Soul Longs ForAug 14, 2018
By Henry Emmons, MD
When my boys were young, we would pack up the van and head south every year for spring break. Desperate for sun and warmth, we made a beeline as far south as needed to find them and then set up camp for a few days.
All of these trips were fun, but one stands out in my mind as being exceptional. After many hours on the road, we discovered a state campground in the Florida panhandle and were pleasantly surprised to find so few people staying there. It was inland and we figured most people headed to Florida had already chosen the beach. Our plan was to use the campground as a launching point and head out in different directions each day to explore the area—including the beach.
The morning after we arrived, we found ourselves lingering over breakfast, enjoying the peace of the nearly deserted campground. None of us, not even our active and typically restless boys, made any move to get ready to leave. The leisurely morning soon turned into afternoon, which turned into evening. We had done virtually nothing all day, other than hang out and enjoy one another. We spent more or less the entire week like that. If we did venture out, we limited ourselves to one thing per day. We were all in agreement that what we wanted, for those few days at least, was some down time. Inactivity, it turned out, was pretty great.
I still enjoy being active, seeing the sites when we travel, and filling life with a variety of fun and interesting things. But I have also come to appreciate, much more than I used to, the restorative value of non-doing. It is good for the soul.
Finding the balance between activity and rest can be tricky. Growing up, I developed a strong belief in being productive, active, and useful. Along with a tendency toward being a bit of an overachiever, it’s been hard to let go of those traits after practicing them for most of my life. But I’m getting the hang of it.
In the last few years, my family and I have spent considerable time at a cabin near the Boundary Waters, in far northern Minnesota. We don't have any motorized boats, preferring to paddle instead. Paddling seems to be a pace more in tune with the natural world.
One of my favorite activities is to go off by myself for an afternoon. I paddle across the lake to a protected wilderness area and hike inland a mile or so to a secluded spot overlooking a river. I then sit for a couple of hours doing nothing except letting the forest seep into me. I’ve never seen another person at that spot. But if I just sit quietly, I will eventually notice deer, eagles, hummingbirds, and other wildlife. I never see them when I’m crashing through the woods, but when I am quiet and still, they seem willing to show themselves.
I sometimes take my journal to this secluded space. It is always different when I write there—it’s more personal, more authentic. It seems to come from a deeper place within me; in a voice that is both honest and reassuring; and always, always kind and non-judging. Whenever I do this, I leave with more clarity, inspiration, and peace than I had before.
I like to think that I am encountering soul when I take this time to be quiet and alone, with no other purpose than that. I imagine soul to be that still, small inner voice that is always with me, but whose nature is to be quiet and non-intrusive. The soul doesn’t force itself upon my consciousness. It doesn’t yell or shove or fight for my attention. Like the wild animals who show up only after I’ve sat quietly for a while, the soul presents itself only if I am still enough to hear it.
I don’t think that tapping into this still space requires being in nature, but I suspect it helps. What is more important is to carve out time when there is nothing you need to do, nowhere you need to go, no one you need to try to be—other than yourself.
Give it a try. Set your intention for non-doing. Give yourself enough time—I’d suggest at least 1 ½ hours. Go to a place that you deem to be special, which could be in the forest, in the mountains, near the water—or it could be a nice tree in a city park, a patch of grass or a garden, or simply a private corner in your house. It should be a quiet place and at a time when you won’t be interrupted. Bring a journal and a pen if you like, or some drawing paper and colors in case you feel like writing or drawing. But, remember that you don’t need to do that. You don’t need to do a thing.
Let go of the busy-ness, set all the doing aside for a little while, and see what happens for you.
Outdoor Therapy and Grounding Techniques for Mental Health
Experiencing awe and wonder in natural settings can promote loving-kindness and other positive behaviors. A decrease in the release of inflammation promoting chemicals (called cytokines) can also occur. This is important for mental health as an excess level of cytokines has been linked to depression. The experience of awe when viewing something considered beautiful also appears to facilitate the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with motivation, desire, reward, and euphoria. Read more.