"Unhand that book. Put it down, put it down, put it down." (I'm assuming you remember what a book is, right?)
That charge – to put my book away – was the startling, even shocking guidance given to me by a very important teacher. A teacher! The power of this instruction literally shocked me into consciousness. Books had always been a big, even vital part of my life, and as I had gotten to know this teacher I became certain they held a similar currency for for him. Therefore, when he rolled his eyes, shook his head, and implored me to do something else with my precious quiet time, I didn't fully understand at first what he could possibly mean.
This was many years ago. I had been studying in an intensive program on filmmaking, and soaking in every single molecule of the experience that was possible. Essentially isolated from outside distractions by a cleverly remote training facility, members of the class found themselves locked in lectures, demonstrations-- or especially--practical experiments for up to fourteen hours a day. About half way through the course, approaching our one day off in a long time, I offhandedly I mentioned that I was looking forward to sitting still with a book. That's when my teacher let go with both barrels.
"You read all the time", he said. "Don't you." He wasn't really asking. "This is not the time for you to go find a new idea, or have some personal time away from yourself. Whatever you're working on cannot be let go right now if you sincerely want it to matter."
Away from myself? Books had always been experiences inside myself, great sailing vessels of mind and opportunity. Now he wanted me back in the water, water which had already turned my skin into a submerged prune.
And what did he mean "cannot be let go"? I had been working like a piston all day long, day after day.
I remember what I did. I went running. I remember the morning, fighting to convince my Asics cross trainers onto my feet, forcing myself to take the first steps through a thick, foggy, cool morning. I ran for almost five miles on a partially wooded trail, briefly took a wrong turn, and then I felt it as if I had crashed belly first into a tree limb. By the time I made it back to my spartan room covered in sweat and road splatter, I could barely breathe.
My challenge had not come from the run, per se, but from the sudden encumbrances that descended during the last two miles. When I run, my drifting thoughts often alight on whatever it is that's most creatively vexing me at the moment. On that morning, the first three miles turned out to be little more than an essential pallet cleanser, a way to let body dispel the fog of mind. But then, winded and weary, my thoughts landed and I suddenly knew what I needed to do to complete my assignment. There on a wooded trail, a short screenplay crystalized, almost whole, and I unconsciously quickened my pace to an almost ferocious dash to get back to my computer before it disappeared into a mental thicket of more mundane things.
Entering my room, I tried to take care of my aching muscles, stretch for a few slow minutes, but it hardly mattered. I recall shortly after sitting on the floor, legs outstretched, arms stretching out over my knees, that I could hardly release the muscles. They urged me to get up, not let this thing go. I furiously wiped off my hands, and began furiously pounding the keyboard of my laptop, trying to capture the passions generated on the road. My fingers continually slipped on the keys; I remember dripping sweat from my forehead onto my machine in enough quantity to make me a little nervous.
My teacher's charge to put down my book prompted a moment of insight I've never forgotten. Sometimes we tell ourselves that the best way to care for ourselves is to take a break, to walk away for a little while, to let some part of ourselves rest. Sometimes that's solid, valuable advice.
But not always. The modern dilemma, the singular biggest challenge we all face in a task oriented, information saturated world, is the freedom to suspend all other things in favor of absolute and total focus. When we enjoin an important task--and there's no perfect way to determine what defines an important task (not all qualify!)--our own exhaustion and exasperation can become the levers that catapult us into clarity. When our defenses are down, when there's very little left in our ordinary fuel tanks, we're unencumbered by the mass and weight we typically carry. The process forward becomes like the cracking, peeling paper around a flower bulb as it sends a thin spike of green up through the dark Earth to emerge into the golden light of day. The effort may be heroic, but the potential to capture something lasting and true cannot be denied if the bloom is to have any hope at all.
Is this a recipe for accomplishing all things? Not a chance. But when something matters, when it matters more than other things, when you're close to creating something that never existed before and the risk is that it never comes to life at all, the excuse of needing a break is just that: an excuse. You're only excusing yourself; the great, big world won't care. Feel free to kick back and relax. You're only human after all, and you're not a machine.
But sometimes….sometimes….the only way to be fully, deeply, truly human is to set your immediate needs aside for something less tangible, and more real than anything else in the world.