Is “down time” really down?

One of the first things that caught my attention in Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, was her quotes from people she described as “introverts pretending to be extroverts.” One man said “I need a lot of down time.” That resonated through me like some enchanted gong, growing louder and louder the more I thought about it, and then I realized…

I’m exactly the same way.

Except I hadn’t thought of it as a need. I thought of it as time wasted. I explained it to myself as a lingering symptom of depression that undercut my motivation. And underneath these words, I felt it as a failure.

Now that I’ve been exposed to the notion of down time as a normal recuperating period for HSPs and introverts, following overstimulus in general, and periods of heavy interpersonal interaction in particular, I’m not quite so hard on myself. And that creates an opening to consider the possibility that something worthwhile may be happening during “down time.”

It’s a challenge. I can be rather literal – if I don’t see it, there’s nothing there, right? I’m not like that about everything, but in this case it’s hard to buy that something totally unconscious might be going on. For one thing, it such a neat excuse, as in, “it’s not my fault I played video games all day – I needed down time.” I read through a bunch of interviews with gang members once, and there was a lot of that. I judged.

I am, however, ready to reconsider that judgment, with new knowledge in hand. I can see how introverts and/or HSPs living 24/7 in the pressure-cooker of gang culture would have a constant and desperate need for recuperation time.

But there’s another problem. It’s kind of disorienting to think that there may be things going on in my brain that I don’t know about. I’m a pretty conscious person, or so I was always told, and I agreed. I know there are subconscious processes, because I can become conscious of them if I look for them. But if my mind is working in ways that I not only don’t see, but can’t see, can I ever know myself? Disturbing, right?

It’s somewhat less scary when I think of it as a creative process. There seems to be a lot of support for that. On the Nov. 16, 2013 edition of PRI’s To The Best of Our Knowledge (“When the Muse Descends“), creators in divergent disciplines talked about unconscious germination processes. And in an interview last month on the NPR program City Arts & Lectures, Christopher Guest spoke of averaging about four years of “down time” between projects.

Four years! That program isn’t available as a download, but I stayed up half the night to record a re-broadcast, because I knew I needed to hear that over and over.

two cats stretched to their full length lie sleeping

Grand Masters of down time


Guest pointed out that he isn’t stretched on the couch twiddling his thumbs or contemplating his navel on a mountain top (not that there’s anything wrong with that) for those four years. He’s living his life. Which prompted me to re-examine my own down time. Was I really doing “nothing?”

Well, not exactly. Sometimes I’m restless during down time. I’m too overstimulated to focus on one thing, but I need both my mind and my body superficially engaged, so I might wash the dishes while listening to 19th century British murder mysteries. There’s a very precise balance I’m trying to find. It’s almost as if there’s an underlying beat, just out of hearing, that I’m trying to match.

I think there are different phases of down time. When I’m really overwhelmed, I just can’t take anything else in. That’s when I love silence. Long walks work, and I can get a lot of housework done.

In the next phase, my decks aren’t cleared enough to give any one thing my full attention, but I’m ready for selected new input. And when I look at that input closely, I begin to see that it’s actually very important stuff. Take yesterday, for example. I listened to an interview with author Priya Basil, who I had never heard of. She was a personable guest, with an interesting life history, but my ears really pricked up when she started talking about the NSA phone-tapping scandal in a new and different way:

“I think we often think of freedom as… the ability to speak out in public… We’ve forgotten that freedom is also the right to be private, to be unobserved. I mean, I think we can only be ourselves if there are spaces in which we are not observed.”

Aha! I thought. INTROVERT. And what a fabulous example of the distinct and under-expressed perspective introverts bring to far-reaching social and political issues. Which I ran across totally by accident because I was channel-surfing instead of slogging through my task list for the day. Which, by the way, is also how I came across the Susan Cain interview that started me on this whole path.

And then there was this morning’s Forum program on cultivating focus which I joined midstream. They were discussing the re-introduction of closed doors and interruption-free time blocks to the workplace. I envy the babies being born today, for whom that will be a given. If high school guidance counselors had asked me whether I was energized or fatigued by social contact instead of giving me aptitude tests, well, I wouldn’t be writing this now, so I won’t go there. But you know what I’m saying.

Synchronicity has always played a huge role in my life, and when I knew I needed some kind of change, but not what, I instinctively created space for it. That sounds like confidence in my own process, yet my most synchronistically transformational moments have occurred while I was feeling guilty about something else I wasn’t doing.

I really want to get over that.

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