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Stop Trying So Hard and 4 Other Lessons from a Year of Silence

Meditating

“Freedom is instantaneous the moment we accept things as they are.” ~Karen Maezen Miller

Four years ago I spent the better part of a year being silent.

A friend had told me that in silence, the bits of you that need healing heal themselves. He was talking about the bits of me that had pushed me until I was sick and depressed, too anxious to answer the door.

I call it my year of silence, but it was more like a year of “doing nothing” because I wasn’t silently reading a book or silently reorganizing my cutlery drawer; I was just sitting. The not doing was the really challenging part.

Much of what I learned from that year was different to what I’d expected. Five things that surprised me the most were:

1. A unique meditation

My brief going in was “The less you do, the better.” Things I’d considered useful and productive—reading, writing, talking, cooking and even cleaning—were now distractions. “Let your thoughts run,” my friend said. “Notice them if you want to, but leave them to themselves.”

And so, I just sat.

After five days I called and said, “I feel like I used to when I meditated.”

I didn’t get it. Meditation is when you focus on one thing; I was letting my mind leap about. But when you sit without “distractions” you start to see your thoughts for what they are, just thoughts, and as you do, you reconnect with the you beneath your thoughts.

It felt like mediation because it was meditation.

I saw a poster recently that said, “I missed meditation today, which makes seven years in a row.” That’s pretty much how I used to feel too.

Now I know that every time I just sit, without distraction, even if it’s for half an hour, it’s meditation.

2. The din of silence

Being silent sounds peaceful, right?

It’s not.

It’s like pulling up a chair with your harshest most foul-mouthed critic and saying, “Okay, tell me what you really think?”

And while there were some “I’m connected to all things” times, there were also the “I want to stab myself” times. (I’m only half kidding.)

Think of your mind as a spoiled child indulged with toys and shiny objects its whole life— books to read, things to watch, goals to work toward, scrabble.

When you do nothing, there are no toys.

Here’s a poem I wrote in one of my sneaky, writing moments.

Having a Knees Up
The only place my
head wants to be, is
under the covers
close to my knees.

There is no uplifting message to this point; just wanted to say, it can get gnarly.

3. A year of minutes

Your mind is a doing things junkie. It almost doesn’t care what you do.

It’s like a heroin addict. No heroin? I’ll take crack. Finished the last episode of Walking Dead; I’ll take the video of the cat in a shark suit.

I began this not doing lark for just one day, but I carried on because, for the first time in a long time, it felt right. My mind, however, thought I was a loser. It said things like:

“How are you going to get anywhere like this?!”
“Let’s start a blog and write about this.”
“Elizabeth Gilbert went to India. You should go to India.”
“Oh, learn Māori. You’ve always wanted to do that.”

The urge to do was gargantuan. It was also epic. Mighty. And colossal. Thank you thesaurus, I think we’ve made our point.

And it was made worse by all the cool ideas I was having. Silence does that. And a few of them were actually cool.

My mind was relentless.

Early on I realized the challenge wasn’t doing this for a year, but hanging-in until lunchtime.

The only way through was minute by minute. Not in thinking how awesomely silent I’d been the day before—nice thought—or thinking about what lay ahead, but by being present in the moment.

As time went on it got easier. My mind got tired of being ignored and stopped talking so much.

4. The wrong guy for the job

There is nothing like watching your mind to really get to know it.

I hadn’t realized how bossy it was. How much it worried. Or that it’s so terrified of change it’ll do anything to maintain the status quo, even when the status quo is you being too anxious to answer the door, or whatever hole/habit you might be stuck in.

I began to understand my mind’s basic nature. And how the most important thing to the mind is to be alert for danger.

I realized that the problem wasn’t my mind—it was me. I’d given it the wrong job. I’d mistakenly put it in charge of my life.

When my body told me to rest, my mind said, “No, try harder,” so I did.

When I had an idea to do something, my mind said, “But no one else does it like that.” And so I didn’t either.

I constantly allowed my mind to overrule deeper wisdom and natural desire. I didn’t allow the rhythm and energy of life to flow through me; I tried to control it.

Letting your mind rule your life is like asking your inner eight year old to organize the next presidential campaign; she doesn’t know how and spends most of her time trying to look good in front of her friends. 

5. The holy grail—acceptance

Silence helps you find balance.

Silence comes in different shapes. Silence is meditation. Silence is “doing nothing.” Silence can be standing in line without checking your phone.

Silence helps you see your mind is just one part of you. Silence helps you hear your wise inner voice.

But I also learned something far deeper and even more important; the cat inside the shark suit…

Human beings try hard. At everything. For instance, at one stage I tried so hard at doing nothing that I became phobic. (Yep.) And you might be thinking, if I were silent for a year I could be as calm and relaxed as Lisa is.

Firstly, ha ha, about me feeling calm all the time. Secondly, that’s your mind talking.

The key to feeling self-assured and peaceful doesn’t come from some arduous journey, like being silent for a year, but in living life day to day.

People often ask me, but how do I feel calm and “positive” all the time? The answer: you don’t. Stop trying to. And when you do, gradually the moments that feel good start to expand and the ones that don’t start to recede.

When you have a clear moment, you have a clear moment. But those other non-clear moments, they’re perfectly fine too.

When you have a positive, life-affirming thought, this is fine, but so are all those cranky not so life-affirming thoughts.

Practicing acceptance is the master key.

Photo by Ian Burt

About Lisa Esile

Lisa grew up in New Zealand and now lives in Los Angeles. Lisa and her husband Franco are the authors of WHOSE MIND IS IT ANYWAY: GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD AND INTO YOUR LIFE (Penguin Random House, 2016). You can grab a FREE copy of her book, "The Lazy Person's Guide to Feeling Awesome and Ultimate ALL the time," here!

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  • Tim

    I always love reading your stuff. I’m so sorry if it flatters you! I especially love the fact that you’re from New Zealand (I think) and you throw in these little references like “I want to learn Maori.” Please keep it up. I’ll always read more of your stuff.

  • Audrey Meyer

    Love your post! It is always encouraging to hear other people’s experiences and insight. Thanks for that!

  • Bjorn

    Hello from New Zealand! Thanks again Lisa, your posts are fantastic.

  • lv2terp

    Beautiful post, thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom!!! Inspiring message! 🙂

  • Sara Micromatis

    This is EXACTLY what I needed to hear right now. Thank you so, so much.

  • Kathy www.yinyangmother.com

    Great post Lisa – you have really captured how our minds want to keep us busy (or disable us with our thoughts – it felt like you’d eavesdropped on one of my conversations with myself! I love how silence allows room for so many thoughts but it also the means to let them flow through us and access the wisdom within.

  • Lisaesile

    My pleasure, thanks Audrey!

  • Lisaesile

    Hey Bjorn from New Zealand! Happy spring to you! And thank you:)

  • Lisaesile

    It really is my pleasure!

  • Lisaesile

    Oh wonderful. I love it when that happens. Best wishes to you Sara!

  • Lisaesile

    Kia Ora Tim! Yep, you read it right, I’m from NZ, though live in the US now. Love that you liked the article! Have a good one! And thank you:)

  • Lisaesile

    Thanks Kathy!

  • 1complexmolecule

    This! I have ADD. The silence & not doing is so very hard. My mind jumps all over all the time. But eventually thr silence is its own type of music. But the cat on the Roomba in the shark? He’s at peace with himself.

  • Interesting that the sounds we hear from silence is the most intense sounds and messages. And as you’ve shown here, the most profound wisdom.

    When we really keep quite and are mindful, that’s when we can truly hear. Thank you for sharing this, Lisa!

  • Frank

    This is a very interesting concept to me. As a 65 year old self employed plumber it has been my safety net to never allow myself to doubt that I could fix what ever I just tore apart for my customer. That has led me to a very controlled mind set so as to not get myself into a place that I KNEW I could not control. Unfortunetly this has permeated my life, and it’s processes, so it is very hard for me to step back and just lister. I find my need to continuously monitor all the things that surround, or are connected to me, is sometimes overwhelming. This, I find, leads me to be angry with the person or persons I feel I could help but will not listen. Add to this the complete knowledge that I am so wrong to think this way is madding. I need to not try harder, but I feel I need to just simply try. Thank you for a great post and as already stated, please post more.

  • lanna :)

    love your analogy on the mind and toys!

  • krysalis2012

    Hi Lisa, love the article for its directness and non-clichè info about meditation and will recommend it on my page “The Club of Happy Life-Preneurs” – a German initiative for people trying to find their very own way to happiness. Thanks and greets from Munich, Germany!

  • Vinay

    Its an excellent article Lisa. Had been doing this and felt really great then….though lately had stopped. After reading your article will surely continue again.

  • Andrea

    Thank you! The perfect words and perfect message, at the perfect moment! Very cool!!!

  • Lisaesile

    Oh great! Love how that happens:)

  • Franziska

    Thank you so much for this article! It was seriously one of the most entertaining and enlightening ones that I have read in a while. When you wrote that we are probably thinking that we want to do a year of silence now too, so we can be as calm as you, I really was thinking that and you are right, it’s just my mind – very interesting thought.

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    This was truly an inspiring & eye-opening post…Thank You so much for sharing! Lisa, its nice to see one of your posts here after a long time…most of your blogs really resonate with me, just as Lori didi’s does :).

  • Katie

    I’ve read other pieces by you and love them. Your year of silence continues to intrigue me. What did you do about food/eating, showering, laundry, bills, maintaining family/social relationships, and work all that time?

  • Akshay

    Hi Lisa! Again a fantastic read. By the way is there any relation between ‘acceptance’ and ‘not identifying the self with ones mind’?… Also if we start everything ‘letting-go’, then life would become unorganised?.. Please enlighten with your kind words.
    Regards.

  • Jason Holborn

    Um, wow

  • Jason Holborn

    The tree I planted outside my apartment is named Aotearoa 🙂

  • Carolyn

    Thanks as always Lisa 🙂 It’s eye-opening when you realize how bossy your mind can be!

  • Lisa

    Hi Lisa you are so real when you talk and I relate in the same way. Thank you so much for writing the stuff you do. My best girlfriend past four years ago and your words are like the ones we use to talk about, it’s so missed until I found your writing so keep it up.

  • Lisa

    For me it’s my mind that gets me in hot water with my husband, well it’s my mind then my mouth offers up what it is thinking and that’s what gets me in hot water. Lol. I guess its usually how it is said. I try so try to not use a tone when i talk to him but its so hard. Sometimes it works and other times I forget To. So reading how you don’t have to change anything about yourself is so rewarding because its like take me as I am, which I always thought that way.
    It’s like I’ ll stop using a tone when you clean up after yourself. Lol. That would be a deal I could live with. It’s never like that cause I know and except him for everything that he is, just wish he would do the same with me. Thank for listening. I’m done now that was a little bit of a venting.