Breathing again: 14 ways to calm down and recharge

My shoulders have dropped. I’m breathing deeply.

I’ve really enjoyed a blessed two-week respite, even while still working at the computer almost every day for a few hours.

These things helped:

Long evenings with dear old friends, people who have known me at 15 or 25 or 40, who remember and pay attention. I love having a long history with people, watching them grow (up) as well. A deeply shared history is comforting to me.

Being outdoors in warm fall sunshine. Went for a really long hike this afternoon at Warsaw Caves, (thanks to Ontario reader Susan F. for her blog’s inspiration!) and loved seeing all the mushrooms, sniffing the pine needles and coming home worn out.

Physical activity. I took my first golf lesson, biked, walked, went to the gym.

— A vigorous 90-minute massage. If I were rich, I’d have a massage every week.

Silence. The only sound at my Dad’s house is the haunting and lovely echo of passing trains.

Taking photos.

— Buying a new mini sketchbook and pocket-size watercolor kit. Remembering to make art.

— Being able to walk into town and to the local cafe. Not driving all the time!

— Making a roaring fire and listening to it crackle, then watching the embers glow. We don’t have a fireplace at home.

Reading for pure pleasure, not work or for staying up to date on all my projects.

Unplugging. Staying off the computer (somewhat!), no TV and severely limiting my consumption of radio, newspapers, magazines and the web.

— But…also listening to the radio in French, Radio-Canada. I really miss hearing and speaking French.

Sleeping  up to 11 a night hours as needed. Plus naps!

— Bathing in a deep cast-iron tub by candlelight.

I’ve loved making a thermos of tea and heading back to bed just to read a good novel; (I never read fiction.) I read “All the Pretty Horses”, Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning 1992 book. It’s amazing.

I’ve also treasured the luxury of a lot of space, a house with two floors, two staircases and four bathrooms, as I live and work in 1,000 square feet at home.

But I’ve really valued silence — deep, thick, uninterrupted silence.

I did an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat with my husband in July 2011, (which I blogged about here, if you’re interested in the details), and it changed me for good. I would never have chosen it — he did! — and the enforced silence was instructive indeed. We communicated by Post-Its, hand signals and a few whispers in our room.

Mostly, though, we just shut the hell up. Here’s my story about the retreat from the  November 2011 issue of Marie Claire magazine.

That time away taught me how much energy it takes just to be social. From the minute we wake up to the minute we fall asleep, most of us are also on a timeline, or many — responding to the needs and schedules of our kids’, our pets’, our partner’s, let alone our own, socially, spiritually, physically and professionally.

So these two weeks, most of it spent quietly alone, have been something of a retreat. (My October is insanely busy, with 10 of 30 nights already booked with social or professional engagements.)

We all need to retreat, rest, relax. Yet it’s radically counter-cultural to just unplug and be alone in silence.

We all spend our days, and our nights, talking/reading/listening/watching/interacting/emailing/tweeting — and wonder why we end up so worn out.

How do you recharge?

26 thoughts on “Breathing again: 14 ways to calm down and recharge

  1. Reading for pleasure as well. I’ve whipped through several books recently and taken a break from TV, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s funny to think that when I was young I would get through a book a day during the holidays and vacations, and at least three a week during school terms. Now it takes me a couple of weeks to read some tomes because I can’t find the time to just sit and finish them. The shame.

    Ditto about the massages, though.

    1. Any books you can recommend? I’m always hungry for a good book.

      The problem with TV is that it consumes entire evenings and it doesn’t contribute much back. Movies, always. The massage re-set me and I hope to sked in one a month from now on, which is $100 or so where I live. Here, it was $80.

      1. I swallowed “Wolf Hall” down whole, and am well into its sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” both historical fiction by Hilary Mantel. I’m working on the Song of Fire and Ice series, for fantasy. Biography, “His Excellency: George Washington,” by Joseph Ellis. And for non fiction, “Unnatural Selection,” by Mara Hvistendahl was eye opening.

        Now, with the start of the Fall TV season, my bookish noblemindedness will probably go up in smoke, though.

      2. I’ve certainly heard a lot of rave reviews for these Mantel books. I bought the St. Aubyn series (3 in one) which people say are amazing.

        What will tempt you to the TV? I hate to admit it, but Grey’s, What Not To Wear and, of course, Downton Abbey…

      3. Dr. Who, Downton Abbey, Dexter, and Community. I tore Grey’s from my heart and buried it long ago when it toyed far, far too much with my emotions/ability to suspend disbelief of emergency medical scenarios.

  2. Harriet

    Just read your article for MC. The loner that I am I’d gladly go to retreat. I find talking exhausting, and can certainly go without hearing the news for a week. I’m afraid that if I were to go this sort of retreat I’d never come back from there.
    How do I recharge? Living in London on a student budget does not allow me travel a lot abroad. Instead, I found a place here called Hampstead Heath. The park is is also the highest point in London and offers a wonderful view. I recharge my batteries by wandering around there (read: I let myself get lost) for some three four hours, once a season. Great way to calm down and clear one’s mind in a busy city.

    1. The Heath is glorious! I lived in London as a little girl for three years and have been back many times. I also love Primrose Hill, which has great views of the city. Living in a city makes it even tougher. I was surprisingly worn out after only three full days in Toronto, and glad to come back to this quiet little town.

      Thanks for reading the MC piece. The silent retreat was truly life-changing, certainly for someone like me who is very social and also has to communicate every day with clients/sources to make a living.

      Before I left NY my left eye was actually twitching from stress. Gross. So my single toughest challenge is to stay OFF the computer when it is a source of both my social life and my work.

  3. That was a lovely article about your retreat.
    I recharge by doing art work (either drawing or collage), by writing letters, and reading. But the real retreat I had was last summer when I took some of my vacation alone and was at a retreat center in the woods in Oregon (Breitenbush Hot Springs). I wasn’t there for a formal retreat, and there were an awful lot of people around, but it was geographically isolated and technology-free along with hot springs pools. I hope I can go every year.

  4. I totally agree with you about TV – we finally ditched it in my house and I’m so thankful for it’s absence. The only show I miss is Masterpiece Theater and it’s all online.

    My favorite recharge spot is Vermont. My grandparents have a house there and every summer my fam goes up for some quiet time. There’s no wifi, so I have to go into town to use the computer. My days are composed of pleasure reading – usually 2 or 3 novels in a few weeks, knitting, needle point, journaling, sketching, swims in the pond, cooking, eating good food, and soaking up the sunshine. We always go in the summer and it’s the perfect way to recuperate from post-college exhaustion. Love it.

    1. Oooooh. Can I come? 🙂

      One of the things that strikes me about all these pursuits is how 19th century they are. I wonder if we’re onto something here.

      So glad you have such a refuge. It sounds lovely!

  5. Dan Ferber

    Caitlin, great post, and wonderful article about your silent retreat. I recharge via meditation, too, among other things. I practice qigong. Every day I practice a still meditation in a seated or standing position and several mindful slow-moving exercises. It’s from a Taoist tradition rather than a Buddhist tradition. It is a wonderful way to maintain balance as a writer because it relaxes and energizes my body and it gets me out of my head. I was struck by your comment that “We all need to retreat, rest, relax. Yet it’s radically counter-cultural to just unplug and be alone in silence.” Yes, exactly. I’ve been doing it so long that a stretch of peace and quiet seems as essential to my day, and to my well-being, as sleeping or eating. I hardly ever worry anymore about other people’s hangups about meditation or the fact that it seems counter-cultural, but I know you’re not alone in feeling that way. Anyway, thanks for the post.

    1. Thanks for such a helpful comment…

      I bet a lot of people do this sort of thing but may not talk about it. I bet if we look around at the calmer ones, you’d find those who meditate and/or do yoga and/or pray…anything quiet to get centered, and consistently.

      I wish the consumer/cyber culture made silence and solitude as “duh” and obvious for us as brushing our teeth or sleeping to stay healthy. It does the opposite, pushing us to faster frenzies and 24/7 “connectedness.”

      Having checked back in on Facebook after a few days off…meh. Same shit, different day.

  6. We’ve an extra long weekend here in Korea and so far I reckon I’ve done most of these, if not all so far – but still haven’t learned to unplug effectively.

    Would have included having a drink or two on that list, but that doesn’t work for everybody!

  7. Reblogged this on DEACademics and commented:
    Last week we gave you some tips for time management. Wake can be hectic, but it’s only as difficult as you make it! Don’t forget to take some time for yourself and recharge when you necessary. You’ll find you’re more productive!

  8. You have just described precisely the way we recharge too – even down to the novels. Actually my teenage son is studying ‘The Road’ by McCarthy for his Higher exam and its been great because although I’ve read it, I am learning so much more through him and his teacher. Brilliant author.
    Your post made me feel very human and normal 🙂

  9. I do this with extended periods of hermiting. 3 days of not uttering a word/seeing another soul? Bliss, sign me up! Or on a daily basis, chucking some headphones with decent beats on to drown out the rest of the world, and walking as much as humanly possible to get to wherever I’m going without arriving too dishevelled. Walking is a highly underrated method of recharging. Can be done anywhere, in any season, if you really need to get away.

    The cost of social interaction is fairly high for me, being a deeply introverted sort – but given that I work in the city at an office job, finding and grabbing incidental pockets of hermit time is a life saver.

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