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My Forced Vacation from Thought

How a Concussion Taught Me to Live from Awareness

Sunny. Deliciously coolish for the Western North Carolina mountains in late spring. A glorious day that had me so happy that I gushed in joy to my new river shoes about how much I loved them.

Then those same shoes turned on me—or started me on my journey—depending on how you look at it.

An hour after I professed love to my shoes, a lace got caught under the body of my car as I was getting groceries out of the back seat. A grocery bag in each hand, purse slung over my shoulder, I wobbled wildly side to side before crash landing on the driveway, slamming my forehead into the bumper of our other car on the way down.  

Laying on the driveway, aware of the aroma of freshly smashed strawberries, three things were clear:

1) Life as I knew was going to change. More than that, I so desperately wanted it to change that, with a little help from my shoes, I engineered a three-month “vacation” from thought so that there was no sliding back into old habits.

2) The three big business/projects in my life popped into awareness, with the demand that one had to go. I chose the business that I enjoyed but didn’t love, even though it was my primary source of income.

3) I had a doozy of a concussion. Having had five as a teenager, I knew exactly what was happening. Several decades on, this one was going to take a while to heal. I checked in with my body to see if I needed medical attention—the intuition was that as long as I got into a dark room and chilled out fast, I’d be fine.

Then my thinking brain went off-line. For a few months.

My brain as an organ still worked. I could eat, sleep, cook, carry on short conversations and perform tasks familiar to my unconscious mind, like driving. But thinking was so painful and fatiguing, I couldn’t cognitively process information or entertain the constant chatter that normally filled my mind.   

Luckily (and a little weirdly), through years of meditation and self-experimentation, I had trained myself to operate from awareness rather than cognition as a form of spiritual practice. So, I had some experience navigating this new space.

The part of my life that I wanted desperately to change was the ingrained habit of thinking my way through life—to live from my thoughts, beliefs, models and rules about life rather than the reality beneath them. I wanted to live from unfiltered awareness and compassion, acceptance and peace I experienced in this state. I could do it in meditation and sporadically in other parts of my life. But much of the time, my thought process kept me in constant mental interpretation of life and the endless internal monologue about how I was measuring up to a glut of competing standards.

I wanted to disrupt the mentalizing and conceptualizing and live full-time in the present-moment mystery of awareness.

Over the weeks ahead, I was both relieved and miffed that the world churned on just fine without me. Turns out that if you ignore a to-do list for long enough, most of what was on it either gets done by others or becomes irrelevant.

The gifts of this time were numerous, but two stand out.

First: the distinction between thought and awareness. In my experience, thought fired the synapses and electrical activity in my brain, and it hurt so much I couldn’t do it. Awareness—the consciousness observing the experience—was deeply soothing and very wise. Awareness experienced the flow of life unfolding before in joyful acceptance of what is, and enjoyed the uncertainty of what may come next. Thought has an opinion of how things are supposed to be—often multiple opinions that debate one another trying to analyze and control life. Thought constantly narrates what is happening as if needing the verbal interpretation to understand it. Awareness is the picture that is worth a thousand words. Thought is the thousand words describing, interpreting and judging the picture.

Second: the choice of self to reference. In the absence of thought, the only “self” to reference was awareness, which is mostly impossible to reference because it has no fixed ideas of itself. It just is. You can experience this self in the present moment, but examining it brings you back into thought. Thought digs through all the inner frameworks for conditioned beliefs and emotions, ideas it has about itself, comparisons and other contrived but persistent illusions to make the psyche feel okay and the world predictable.   

Boiled down to basics, in my experience thought was exhausting and destabilizing, even though the purpose is to stabilize the psyche. Awareness is nourishing, soothing and very stabilizing because it simply accepts and allows.   

I’d like to say that I eased back into the ability to think with the presence to only use it for what it is good for—balancing a checkbook and other step-by-step planning and problem solving.

I do spend a lot more time in awareness now. The allowing of awareness has further reorganized my life in ways that I never would have thought of. I still find myself slipping into the hum of background thought more often than I would like, but I notice it more quickly. Thought still digs in, unwilling to go quietly; its tenacious chatter relishing in its own sense of identity and self-importance.

I have a choice now of how to respond when thought takes over. What works best for me is to drop my awareness into my heart and simply rest there until the me of awareness once again feels more real, and compelling, than the me of thought.

It’s a beautiful place to live.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

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