Valuing the empowering and healing richness of intentional or serendipitous periods of still, empty, fallow time.
Cherish the fallow seasons…
The ground of your being is replenishing itself…
These still times are as empowering, essential and miraculous as the times of bursting forth…
You have long been encouraged to forget that!
Until sometime in my 31st year, my life was typically filled with what the current me would call compulsive super-achievement and terminal busyness. In that transformative year I had a full-time private practice in psychotherapy earning an income that was in the top 2% of professional women's incomes. I (and the feminist man to whom I was then married) cooked and baked everything from scratch, including whole grain breads and desserts every week and our own fresh mayonnaise. We did (and shared on a 50-50 basis) all our own housework, laundry and errands.
I was part of a collective creating and administering the first New York Feminist Psychotherapy Referral Service. We held teas (serving trays of my own homemade cakes, cookies and pastries) during which we did group interviews of therapists applying to be on our list. Each of us did telephone shifts during which we talked with women who were seeking services (so that we could make appropriate referrals for them). We shared responsibility for weekly supervision/training seminars for peer counselors. And, as part of our outreach, we all were interviewed for newspaper features as well as local TV and radio programs.
I designed and crocheted all of my own clothing along with belts, vests, mufflers and hats for the man to whom I was married. And, I had a small side business creating custom crocheted bikinis and mail order crocheted shopping bags (once featured in the Sales and Bargains section of New York Magazine).
I did a daily hour-long stretching routine that I later learned was actually yoga and rode my bicycle 18-24 miles around the Central Park circumference road three days a week in good weather.
I crocheted while waiting on lines at the bank or supermarket, often read while walking on my way to shop and did handwork (crochet or embroidery) whenever I sat with my partner as he watched TV. There was never a moment (except during the few hours when I slept) that I wasn't occupied in some so-called productive enterprise.
Except for the particular activities, that 31st year was not unlike all the years gone before. Yet, it marked a turning point in my journey. An unremitting backache, a rumbling from deep inside my being and an insight about my super-achieving led me through a process that resulted in my making a remarkable series of choices. (See Pirouettes and Reclaiming Rest for more about this time.)
Within little more than a year, I had sold or given away most of my possessions. I'd bought a brand new, stripped Dodge Tradesman van that I, with the salvage of my former life, set up as a bed-sitting room. With grace and kindness, I took leave of my practice, my marriage, my family, my friends and the whole of my life as it was. Then, four months after my 32nd birthday, I began driving cross-country to California with no plan for what came next.
I'd spent that last year in a gradual process of slowing my life, disengaging from all the intensity and expansion of the preceding years. The pressure from within had guided me to and through launching into the yawning unknown. My inner knowing was clear: I had to get where it was green or I would die. I had to stop the compulsive doing that had long been my only way to attempt to quiet the vicious voice of my inner critic. This radical move into stillness appeared to offer the only path to my survival.
Despite the knowing, I wasn't prepared for the unstructured emptiness of the new life I'd been led to embark upon. The downshifting into so much stillness, so much open time was (in the language of those years) mind-blowing. It was edgy: scary and exciting in equal measure.
My days were framed by driving, finding camp grounds to sleep at, cooking/preparing my meals and taking walks or bike rides around the campgrounds in which I'd landed. Since, even on the southernmost route, it was unexpectedly cold that mid-March, I also spent a good deal of energy figuring out how to stay warm.
A radio hadn't been part of the package of a stripped van, so I made do with a presumably high quality portable radio. Most of the time the radio produced only country music (not a favorite of mine) or static. So, I drove surrounded in silence or while singing my way through a lengthy repertoire of love songs and show tunes from the forties and early fifties. (Until then I'd no idea how many of them I knew.)
With nothing productive to do, I spent inordinate amounts of time preparing and cleaning up from my meals, then cleaning up the van from my post-meal clean up. I obsessively examined and re-examined maps and routes. I arranged and rearranged my things in their storage units. Part of that process was a matter of fine-tuning the order I'd created before actually living in the middle of it. Still, a lot more of that re-organizing was a way to structure the wide-open timelessness and cope with my anxiety in the midst of it.
It was disorienting to have nothing to do, nowhere to have to be, nothing to juggle, no one else's sensibilities to attend. Yet, as I continued to drive westward, I began to settle into this new way of being. My body and being started unwinding and relaxing. I slowed down, breathed more deeply. The anxious edges began to melt away. I was able to do less of the make-work that had helped me, in the earliest weeks, to adjust to the absence of structure.
My mind wandered through memories, revisiting old, unresolved ambivalences and issues. I did a lot of wondering about what lay ahead. None of it was focused on figuring anything out. Instead, my psyche simply needed to touch lightly and move on, visiting rather than living into all these territories inside of me.
During the first three months I chose not to connect with anyone along the way. (Except for smiled hellos in campground ladies' rooms.) Weekly, I called back home to report in with one of the three people – my best friend/lover, my sister or my soon-to-be ex – who were my base camp for this solo journey. When I felt like it, I made tapes of my reflections and experiences. These I sent back to one or another of the three of them to share with each other. When I felt lonely I'd wander around in large drugstore-supermarkets like Long's or Walgreen's.
The loneliness was a need to simply be around other human beings rather than to get involved with them. I craved the stillness, reveled in it, wanted to slip more deeply into it. Relating with other people seemed premature. I wasn't yet ready to risk looking through outside eyes at how I was living. The new balance growing inside me, the feeling okay in and with my self while doing absolutely nothing seemed too fragile to submit to anyone else's opinions or reactions.
After I'd been traveling a while in California, l began to talk a little with some of the people I met. When and as I did (in those early days), I consciously chose not to share anything about my former life except the fact that it had given me the financial backing to be free to be doing nothing for a while. This practice of "erasing personal history" (an idea borrowed from Carlos Castanada's Don Juan books) made it safer for me to acknowledge my doing-nothing lifestyle.
I did varying degrees of nothing, living in my van on-the-road for almost a year and a half before I slowly began plugging back in to a more ordinary lifestyle. It had been a radicalizing, healing time in my life. In the middle of doing nothing productive or worthwhile by society's standards, I felt more okay about my self, more worthy as a being than I'd ever felt in my over-filled, busily super-achieving former life.
I got to know my self in new ways during this long season of fallow time. I discovered and nourished parts of my self that I'd never before been aware of; parts that had had no room to emerge in the middle of a too busy, too connected life. Eating when I was hungry, napping when I was tired, going to sleep and waking up when my body was ready for either, not relating to clock time, doing whatever the energy inside me moved me toward – I learned my own rhythms, felt the texture of my own flow.
Without my own or other people's agendas and expectations about emotional intimacy and relatedness, I discovered just how voluptuous my solitude could be, how it nourished and renewed me. Without the constant clamor of the stimulation and input that came with being so busy and so emotionally invested with others, there was time for my being to assimilate and rest.
Re-engaging with regular life – living in a particular place, finding new work, establishing my self in community, making friends – was a stepwise, careful process of exploring my new and renewed self in contexts that I had been away from for a time. There were fits and starts in that re-entry. It was easy to be co-opted by the dominant paradigm; hard to stay firmly in my own slowed down center in the midst of the powerful tide of everyone else's high-gear living.
Yet, I persisted. Unswerving in my choice of a nourishing life in the slow lane, I lived from a deep attunement with my own organic rhythm. Sometimes, seasons of high activity did and do evolve organically from my usual unhurried pace. These are a recognizably different kind of busy. Still, even these more organically based doings can sometimes feel like too much. (See Surrendering for more about that.) And, the energy of the dominant paradigm can often escalate the organic busy into just-mindless-busy if we aren't paying close attention to our belly feelings.
Over the more than 38 years since my re-entry into ordinary life (albeit in the slow lane), I've learned to make retreats-into-stillness a regular part of my living. In earlier years, I'd do these once or twice a year for ten days, two weeks, or even (though rarely) a whole month. In the past few years, I've felt an increasing need to take shorter periods more often. And, most recently, I've been making the space to take a week each month to unplug and be in stillness.
These time-outs are much less radical shifts than that original one. Nevertheless, they create small islands of intentionally fallow time into which I gratefully sink. These empty, quiet times are a wonderful hedge against being unwittingly drawn into busyness.
Sometimes, Spirit hands me fallow time: several clients graduate themselves, take time out or go on vacation all at once and there's a gap of time before new people come to fill those open spaces. Other times, no writing, art or other creative process is in motion within me. Occasionally, these not-consciously-chosen fallow periods last longer than might feel comfortable or welcome. It can seem that nothing is happening inside me during them. I've learned not to be concerned about any of it. Once in a while – even after all these years of knowing better – I have a few moments of worry that nothing will ever flow again. But, then, I take a deep breath and remember, "Oh, this is a fallow season, I can choose to do deep rest instead of doing worry."
We live surrounded by a context (the dominant paradigm) in which fallow time is disparaged: seen as non-productive, slothful, to be avoided at all costs. It takes courage and persistence to claim/reclaim empty time as the essential, empowering part of juicy living that it is. Even when nothing visible seems to come from such periods, you can be assured that the ground of your being is replenishing itself all the while.
Consider giving your self (or receiving) the gift of empty, still time to rest and replenish your cherished self.