“If it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right.” ~Bob Basso
A couple weeks back, my boyfriend and I went to our local county fair. I love—love—fairs.
Forget for a minute that adult-me now gets vertigo just looking at a roller coaster; and that my thirty-year-old digestive track nearly explodes when I catch a whiff of carnie food. When you factor in my increasing interest in crafts and farm animals, it somewhat evens out.
If you’re the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, thrill-seeker type, that might sound as exciting as watching paint dry. But I really do love petting furry little creatures and thinking about things I can make.
Standing in the petting zoo, surrounded by llamas, sheep, goats, and even a wallaby, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. I hopped around to spend equal time with everyone; didn’t want the donkey to feel slighted. I played, I frolicked, I may even have skipped a little.
Truthfully, I would have been equally psyched just to sit back and be a farm voyeur. Just watching the animals scamper and seeing kids’ faces light up as they fed them, I felt happy and peaceful. I didn’t even mind when the goat bit my pant leg. He could have gnawed a hole into my favorite Seven jeans and I still would have found it charming.
Sunny little giggles, that rustic barn smell, the feeling of disconnection from chaotic urban life—everything about that moment appealed to me. I was having fun.
As my boyfriend dragged me out of the petting zoo to see an Eddie Money concert—his brand of fun—I wondered when I’d last felt so happy and free. I did plenty of things I enjoyed in the weeks prior. But none of it was exactly the same. Something was missing. Or perhaps more accurately, something was there most of the time.
That thing was the voice in my head. It sounded a little something like this:
“You quit your job. Are you getting too old for these kinds of risks? Is it really smart to not have insurance? What if you get in an accident and you still don’t have insurance? Did you renew the car insurance? Should you sell the car? You don’t really drive it any way…”
And so on and so on. With so many changes in my life and so much on my plate these days, that little voice had been getting louder, and oftentimes it felt productive to indulge it. It wasn’t. That type of incessant thinking takes away far more than it gives.
It’s hard to be fully present and have fun when a part of you is getting lost in a mental maze.
Doing something you enjoy while judging, analyzing, worrying, fearing, or regretting in your head is like experiencing the world from inside a plastic bubble. You can see and hear everything, but it’s all diluted.
I don’t believe it’s possible to completely silence the nagging inner voice that constantly interprets and judges. That little mental hamster wheel will spin on occasion all throughout our lives.
But I do think it’s possible to slow it down and even stop it for lengths of time. It’s possible to bottle that farm experience (or whatever does it for you) to make presence, peace, and fun the norm and not the rarity.
It’s actually quite simple. Silencing the inner voice and experiencing more joy comes down to these three things:
- Practice mental quiet.
- Incorporate things you enjoy into your day and practice mental quiet while you experience them.
- Find things to enjoy in the things you don’t and practice mental quiet while you experience them.
Let’s break it down:
1. Practice mental quiet.
The mind is like a muscle. If you want it to perform for you in a certain way, you have to train it in advance.
Proponents of meditation recommend meditating for thirty minutes in both the morning and evening to produce a clearer mind. I’ll be honest with you: I’ve never done that, and I suspect I never will. But I do enjoy yoga.
A class is usually sixty to ninety minutes, which allows for at least an hour of moving meditation. Depending on what type of yoga you practice, you can even take a silent class.
If neither of those appeals to you, you could try one of these ideas:
- Once a day, find a quiet place to do something that doesn’t require much thought: knitting, crocheting, or building model ships, for example. Focus solely on the activity and the sensations of doing it. Commit to breathing deeply and remaining silent throughout the whole experience and your brain will eventually slow down.
- Once daily, sit in nature and simply observe. If your mind starts wandering, notice where it’s headed and then come back to your focus. At first you may feel tempted to get up or at least be mentally productive. With consistent practice, that will fade.
Just be sure to remove all distractions, especially distractions of the tech variety.
2. Incorporate things you enjoy in your day and practice mental quiet while you experience them.
This may seem somewhat obvious, but if my experience is any indication, it bears saying. Sure, I do things I love but there are a lot of things I love that I don’t do often, like spending time around animals.
I wondered about that while a lamb nuzzled up against my shin. Why didn’t I have some type of hobby that allowed me to be around animals? And what about the other things that I love so much that I easily get in the zone? Why when things get busy do I sacrifice yoga?
Sometimes we get so caught up in the things we think we should do or need to do that we forget to make joy a priority. Then when we do find pockets of time to do the things we love, oftentimes we’re somewhere else mentally, thinking about everything else.
The best way to challenge this is to create a list of things you love so much they have the potential to melt everything else away. Commit to doing some of these a little every day. Then when you’re doing them, observe your thoughts.
If you start judging, fearing, stressing, or analyzing, notice it and bring yourself back to the present moment. When my mind starts wandering, I tell myself a little something like this:
Stop. Put those thoughts aside. You can think them later if you want to. The most effective thing you can do right now is let yourself enjoy the moment. This moment—this joy—is what you work for. If you can’t enjoy it, the work is pointless.
3. Find things to enjoy in the things you don’t and practice mental quiet while you experience them.
There are plenty of things you’ll have to do in life that won’t seem fun in any way. I once had a doctor that was chronically a half-hour behind. I hated the time in his waiting room because I felt he was wasting my time. For years I’d show up and sit there seething, thinking all kinds of negative thoughts as if I was spiting him with my unspoken hostility.
It took me a long time to realize that open-ended downtime could be a gift. I could bring music, magazines, whatever, and use the time to recharge before the rest of the day. Since I was on someone else’s time, I could also use it to practice acceptance and mindfulness.
When I thought of it that way, the time seemed both more useful and more fun. I’d like to say that I was always a ray of sunshine in that waiting room, leading scores of once frustrated patients in rounds of Kumbaya. But that’s a lie. Sometimes I drifted back to annoyance, which quickly snowballed into other annoyances.
It’s all too easy for one little grievance to turn into a laundry list of judgments and problems, hence the second part of the equation: practice mental quiet.
When you’re in that situation that’s not quite so fun, it might take work to come back to your peace of mind. It’s worth it to make the effort. It may seem like we have an endless supply of moments in life but the truth is they are finite.
Every one counts if we make it count. Why not make it count?
When we were kids, fun was a priority. We always did the things we loved simply because we loved doing them. We didn’t stress about homework at the park because play time was for playing. A boring waiting room wasn’t an obstacle—it was where we played doctor (the G-rated kind).
There’s a whole lot of thinking that can get in the way of mindfulness and presence. The simple point of this somewhat long post: we can choose to quiet those thoughts, and get better at it with practice.