It must have been Autumn, for the days were getting shorter. I recall the way the buttermilk walls and cold mosaic floor would echo the rhythmic pounding of the supervisor’s heels, the crescendo or decrescendo of which being the sole clue to guessing whether she was coming your way or in the opposite direction. There was not much to look at, except for sparse A4 sheets of paper pinned to cork boards, unadorned garments punctuating the bare walls with instructions, rules and other functional pieces of information that could only inspire respect for a faceless institution.
This is where I used to sit, dangling my feet from a backless school bench in what looked like a never-ending hallway. Under the surgical light, I would await the moulding of my fresh young mind. An eight year old’s psyche is an impressionable place. The door would open at three o’clock, and in an instant, the cold would turn to a warm tropical embrace as I caught a glance of my smiling cello teacher and a whiff of the familiar mixed scent of wood, varnish, rosin and musky perfume.
I suspect my affair with music started long before these wet Autumn days, but the picture of the first clumsy encounters of my bow onto my cello’s tense strings have left an indelible stain of passion no amount of time or distraction could ever fade.
An inevitable allergy to noise was sure to follow. Years of fine-tuning my ear in search of the truest musical expression of my burgeoning attempts at making sense of the world combined with a growing rebellious streak that insisted on painting a musical landscape that was as particular as it was eclectic, turned me into a total music snob. Hence the noise allergy.
I realised recently that the concept of noise is not confined to our sensory experience. If a constant and sometimes unconscious curating of my auditory surrounding was instilled in me from a young age, it turns out I do not always apply the same level of thought to my reading habits. Which results in my mind being about as quiet as Harry Potter’s Herbology class on repotting mandrakes.
In its advanced stages, noise pollution in the mind will affect your sleep, focus, decision-making abilities and self-confidence. It may even confuse you as to whether you have an opinion of your own at all. It may be somewhat more subtle than trying to talk over a chainsaw but it will impede your thinking process nonetheless.
Unwanted noise in your mind usually comes from unintentional content consumption. I am not immune to this phenomenon at all. I thought I was pretty intentional myself, you know, being a minimalist and all. Ah! The way we fool ourselves. The truth is one numbs oneself with content the exact same way one drinks a little too much wine, eats a little too much chocolate or watches a little too much TV. I’m not suggesting we completely steer clear of these guilty pleasures. I mean, I’m French. I believe anything is good in moderation, with perhaps the exception of acid or the Kardashians. But as creatures of habit, it is useful to ask oneself why we default back to certain unconstructive behaviours.
My guess is we have become a scared species. We have become scared of silence. Scared of our own company. We have become wary of our intuition and suspicious our own ideas are any good. So we tend to seek reassurance on close to everything. We surround ourselves with other people’s voices, opinions, dogmatism even in an attempt to validate whether our timid shivering idea has indeed legitimacy. Then we numb ourselves by scrolling past bite-sized pieces of information, snapshots and witty comments. This is like content snacking for the brain. And we all do it because it feels good.
Which is why a week of reading deprivation sounded like the dumbest idea at the time.
I was happily making my way through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, completing all the assignments like the good girl on the bench I once was, until I reached that page.
“She wants me to do what?” my suspicious self asked.
“A week of reading deprivation,” my wiser self replied.
“Oh, so no reading books. I think I can manage. But hold on, what about all the sites, blogs, social media, podcasts and TV?”
“Ya, that too.” (it turns out my wiser self picked up a bit of a South African accent…)
“Mmmm… I’m not so sure.”
“She says the more you resist it, the more you need it.”
[ sigh ] “I need an intervention,” my now slightly wiser self admitted.
Short of a friendly ambush, I resorted to the next best thing: Instagram stories. By committing publicly, there was no exempting myself from the experiment, for fear of insulting the online gods. As an extra precaution, I deleted the apps from my phone, you can never be too cautious when you’re dealing with a potential addiction.
What happens when you stop reading for a week
After the initial withdrawal symptoms of compulsively checking my phone and mechanically walking into bookstores only to backtrack with my eyes closed in case I’d accidentally ingest the content of a book by just looking at it, I started settling into a newfound state of steady mindfulness.
You start noticing a new world of pictures and sounds
Translation: the world around me suddenly turned to a vibrant full-colour HD.
The murmur of a bunch of early risers catching up over coffee.
Portafilter clicking into place.
Buzz as the coffee squeezes out of the filter.
A cup clinking onto a saucer.
Coins landing into the tip jar.
A temporary hush between orders.
Amy Winehouse’s voice becoming clearer for a few seconds before the barista resumes what sounds like a well-rehearsed ballet of sounds.
The most mundane details start taking centre stage in your day, in a fast-paced editing style worthy of Baz Luhrmann.
You hear yourself more clearly
By filtering out external opinions, you start hearing yourself more clearly. A lot more. And non-stop. If this is nothing short of disturbing at first, you quickly come up with some strategies to avoid hearing the same thoughts bumping against the edges of your skull over and over again like a bee failing to escape a glass jar.
Meditation and journaling are great ways to establish a safe distance with your thoughts to figure out whether you should do something with them or let them go.
When you start tapping into your wiser self with much more clarity, you’ll see new ideas emerge. Were they any good? Far from it. But like with terrible first drafts, let yourself bleed on the page first. Face your demons. Your true desires. Your secret dreams. Then burn the evidence or be generous with your editing.
You interact with real-life humans
Being comfortable in my own company has never been too much of a struggle for me. Let me rephrase that: root canal sounds more enticing than having to converse with strangers. That being said, you can have introverted tendencies and still crave social interactions. Let’s not forget we’re all beautifully screwed up walking contradictions in one way or another.
When you stop reading, you have no choice but to look up. You cannot hide behind a book or a screen while you wait. That’s how I started chatting to Über drivers, enjoying a snapshot of their personality, day and personal history with my morning ride. They seemed to appreciate being seen as opposed to just serving a function. And just like that, you create simple but genuine human connections and gather writing material.
The changes were imperceptible at first, but I then found myself walking into my nearest optometrist to finally order the glasses I was supposed to get five months ago instead of getting stuck in neverending online research. And before I knew it, I was joining a local writing circle, reading unedited terrible first drafts to complete strangers.
Google is no longer the adult in charge
When you stop all reading altogether and your child carries on experimenting with the laws of gravity, it is only a matter of time before you face a real-life challenge and realise that you are the adult in charge around here. Google cannot save you this time. I’m glad to report that everyone survived. So I can mother after all…
You reconnect with your intuition
This leads me to self-doubt. When Louis was first born, I kept oscillating between feelings of “I totally got this” and “how on earth will I keep this tiny human alive?” Hormonal fluctuations apart, I feel like we have lost faith in our intuition. Very often, we will trust the opinion of a complete stranger on the internet over what we feel in our gut. When you can’t default back to seeking answers outside, you are forced to look inwards. Spoiler alert: that’s where all the good stuff comes from.
You find time
So much more time… All I’m going to say here is that we waste a lot more time than we’d like to admit. And we waste even more time trying to justify how it was productive. This experiment has been a real eye-opener in terms of how I use my time, and how being a little more intentional goes a long way.
You start playing again
And with more time, comes a more relaxed frame of mind, in which you surprise yourself. I started playing more music, playing more with Louis, practising calligraphy, experimenting with my cooking and singing while I went about what felt like a slightly more care-free version of my life. Needless to say this is fuel for creativity.
Yes, so what happens next? An experiment is meant to flirt with the edges of what is feasible and is by no mean designed to be applied to your life as is. While this shock to my perhaps too comfortable routine was a catalyst for small but meaningful change in my life, I did welcome reading back into my life with enthusiasm.
Intentional enthusiasm would be a better way to describe it.
I am now a lot more mindful of my phone usage and internet browsing by setting specific times for emails and social media.
Apart from these times, I use my phone as a device intended to speak or message people, as opposed to an adult pacifier.
I make a point of going out more and interacting with people in real life.
I read and listen to less content, trusting my own ideas and opinion more.
I make sure I have quiet time to reflect and connect with myself – at the moment, it involves a morning meditation followed by morning pages.
I have daily dance parties and adventures with Louis.
Your list may be dramatically different from mine, but by making small tweaks, you can definitely turn the noise in your mind way down and enjoy a slightly calmer, more at ease version of yourself.
If you are curious about what benefits would emerge for you, I could not encourage you more than to simply give it a go. I was surprised to find this was a wonderfully restoring experience, and I felt like I had been on a mini vacation even though work carried on as usual and I was flying solo at home. The beauty is you don’t need anything to get started. You don’t even need to do it for an entire week, just give yourself the chance to revisit certain habits and see first hand how much time and space we can create by simply being a little more mindful about the content we consume.
The human mind is a sacred creative territory. We are the sole guardians in charge of filtering what comes in. Make sure it is nourishing. Look after this beautiful place of yours, give it the rest it deserves, and beware of subtle noise. Let it breathe, let it be quiet. Just let it be.
SOUNDTRACK: IT’S OH SO QUIET | BJÖRK