March 25, 2011

Oh Lord! I May Be A Busy-Junkie.

The Art of Having Free Time.

For my kids, standardized testing is not about assessing their accumulated wisdom. It is not about helping the school achieve a higher ranking within the state. And, while this will no doubt change, it is also not about getting good scores so they can get into the college of their dreams. To my kids, standardized testing means only one thing – no homework for a week.

While you might assume (as my kids do) that a week without homework is a good thing, in my house a homework-free week is a little unsettling. The first few days, rather than coming home and relishing their free afternoons, my kids don’t seem to know what to do with themselves. They are antsy. They are irritable. They pick on each other. It’s as if they don’t know what to do when they have nothing they have to be doing. It’s as if they’ve forgotten how to not be busy.

When I stopped dashing around from project to task to chore for enough time to actually think about that, it made me sad. I don’t want my kids to be busy-junkies. I don’t want them to fall prey to the illusion so rampant among grown-ups that only very busy people are important. I don’t want them to forget what it feels like to simply let a day or an afternoon unfold. I don’t want them to fall so far out of touch with their impulses and desires that they literally can’t figure out what they’d enjoy doing when they get a free minute.

Just yesterday I wound up with an entirely free afternoon. I found myself pacing my house searching for a project that needed doing. I tried to settle down with a magazine only to hop up repeatedly to check my email or phone. I made dinner ridiculously early. I balanced my checkbook. I frittered away two whole hours with my antsy, out-of-sorts behavior. Clearly, my children are not the only ones who have forgotten how to not be busy!

Tripping over my dog, who was doing his very best to keep up with my pacing, forced me to pause. Was I doing anything to wring the most out of my afternoon? Was I enjoying my rare moments of freedom? Decidedly not.

I sat down next to my dog (who, by the way, seems very happy to let his afternoons unfold as long as no one is tripping over him), wrapped my arms around him and held still. While we snuggled, I tried to keep my mind as still as my body. I stayed there longer than I wanted to. I deliberately did not act on several inconsequential tasks that sprang to mind. Something deep within me recognized the stillness as the antidote to my restlessness.

I believe it’s all the time I’ve spent resting in savasana at the end of my yoga practices that has taught me to respect the power of a little stillness. I don’t have to work as hard to make myself hold still in savasana as I did when I was sitting on the floor next to my dog. First off, the effort of my practice itself has burned away any antsy-ness I may have brought with me to my mat. With my restlessness abated, with the work of my yoga behind me, holding still feels easy and natural. The power of savasana comes from the combination of physical and mental stillness. The focused, centered state of mind that practicing yoga induces allows me to rein in my roving mind even when it no longer has to focus on getting my body into and out of asana. When I do sit up from savasana, I feel physically restored, mentally sharp and emotionally centered.

It’s important to note that I do sit up after each savasana and get on with my day. Stillness is healthy and restorative, but it is not the way we were intended to exist day in and day out. We are each an integral part of our community, which requires us to play our roles – mother, employee, student, friend. But being part of our community doesn’t require us to play our roles 100% of the time. And it certainly doesn’t require us to be busy-junkies. A little time in stillness allows us to draw our awareness inward, to remind ourselves of what matters to us, to remember what feeds our spirits. A little time in stillness allows us to return to our days with a clearer sense of priorities.

And so, when I stood up from my snuggle with the dog yesterday, I did so with a clearer purpose. I didn’t do anything earth-shattering with the rest of my afternoon, but what I did do, I enjoyed thoroughly. Similarly, midway through their homework-free week, my kids re-discovered the art of having free time. When I called them in from the woods around our house for dinner, in they came, filthy, brimming with news of discoveries and deliciously exhausted. It just took a little practice to find their way back to the joys of being not-so-busy. Too bad standardized testing only takes a week.

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