America and Kosovo, as different as night and day. My previous post 6 Differences Between America and the Balkans will give a good idea of some of the challenges I have had since my return; some expected, some unexpected. For instance, I expected a physical adjustment and planned taking a few months to gradually adjust my body to the fast pace Western culture’s demand. A hurdle I didn’t expect; however, was the mental transition coming from hours of rambling conversations and downtime that is the slow pace of Balkan culture.
Over the last few months, I have taken 5 steps towards reclaiming mental sharpness and remastering my mind to remain focused throughout the day.
- Find Silence.
The first adjustment came immediately after returning. I left my ipod in my room and went for a long run down my wooded backroads in search of silence. After 2 years constantly surrounded by noise and conversation, the sound of silence was deafening in my ears. By the end of my run; however, I felt a calmness in the solitude, as if a heavy mist was clearing from my head after a deep sleep.
Somewhere along the backroads, my mind had naturally filled the vacuum left by silence with its own thoughts and ideas and started organizing them into neat, labeled files in my chaotic brain.
The next day, I went out again for a longer run and came back thinking a little clearer, a little more organized. And so began the 1st of a series of steps, processing a little more of yesterday to make room for today, turning off the noise around me to awaken my brain from its slumber. Almost every morning since my return, I have woken up early to beat the noise of awakened civilization and catch the sunrise. Finding a little bit of silence every day helps me master the story of my past in hope and slowly take on mastery of the reality of my present.
- Write and Rewrite.
An easy step up from finding silence for me, was writing. At first, I wrote about Kosovo and Peace Corps and the last few years of life living abroad, but over time, my writing has evolved to include my time back. I had known since I returned that I was unfocused, mindlessly wandered through work and errands every day, lost in my thoughts. I couldn’t seem to remember much of my last 3 months in America, but I could talk endlessly about the 27 before in Kosovo—so that was a plus, at least for me. My friends on the other hand, seemed increasingly less thrilled to hear about my time abroad and my employers sighed indulgently at my constant requests to repeat themselves.
One thing I have learned through this process is time takes time and one cannot move on from the past until enough space has been cleared in the mind for the present.
Transitioning my focus has been a process that is happening slowly which I can track through my writing as I see my words evolve with my thoughts from past to present tense (still nothing in future tense, but hey, don’t rush me!). Though at times I even annoy myself finding memories already filed away looping back like a song on repeat. But I find the more I write and rewrite, the more focused I become and able to live in reality. Like descending from the clouds, writing has helped bring my world into focus and come back to reality.
- Read, Listen, Learn.
While running and writing have been foundational in re-grounding my mind back to reality, I found early on in my transition there was a lack of mental sharpness that had crept over me somewhere in the Balkans and left my mind dull and often blank. The 3rd step of my “reawakening” process came a month or so in, about the same time I moved to Hawaii and began working again. Curiosity and musings began to sneak into my thoughts and journal entries.
Like a door thrown open in a hurricane, suddenly out of nowhere my mind was flooded with questions and theories and I found myself starving for information.
I read the news and blogs, books and articles, every and anything. I found a professor from Harvard on youtube and spent 2 to 3 hours a day listening to his lectures on psychology and philosophy. Where music and noise had clouded my thoughts before, I now filled the space listening to podcasts and lectures, reading and contemplating literary works of art. In the last 3 months, I have listened to over 30 hours of lectures, read 3 books and started a LinkedIn, Twitter and personal blog. I lecture my roommates on humanity and philosophy each night and my mother and siblings over the phone on my way to work.
They say you have an average of 6,000 thoughts a day and most of them are the same ones you had yesterday. My goal is to have 6,000 new thoughts each day but that requires a lot of listening, thinking, reading and writing—a challenge I gladly accept.
- Take Social Media Apps off Homescreen.
Shortly after returning, I realized every time I looked down at my phone, a glowing red dot of a notification was taunting me mercilessly until I opened up Facebook. But the notifications were never important and I always seemed to end mindlessly scrolling long after. I’d finally exit only to look down a few minutes later to another notification taunting me all over again. Messenger was just as bad. People seemed to quickly trap me in rambling conversation. I admit, for many of my contacts, Facebook and Messenger are the only contact option so deleting my account is out of the question. Getting the app off my homescreen, however, has beenn an immediate game-changer. No more red dots taunting me every few minutes. No more bored people pulling me into mindless conversation. I still have Facebook and Messenger and go on a few times a week, but having to actually conscientiously log on has made all the difference.
- Put the Phone Away.
Despite my best efforts, up until a week ago, I still felt like I hadn’t quite gotten my mojo back and still found myself with my head in the clouds instead of the workplace. I decided to make a conscientious decision to put my phone down. The hardest step to take, but I felt the difference the day I walked into work and left my phone at the bottom of my bag.
Something that had been used to survive hours of café visits, had followed me back from Kosovo and had me holding my phone like a safety blanket and constantly checking my mail, my blog, my twitter and the news.
Deciding to go the entire work day without it allowed me to become fully present and connect with the people and conversations around me. I walked in each day with the idea that I am going to be present the entire time. The result has been empowering. I stopped looking down and started looking up and being engaged in the world. My work day went from a grueling 8 to 3 of finding ways to sneak a glance at my phone to a “What else can I do for you?” The teacher I was assisting last week told me I was the best sub she had had and the next day, the school librarian put me in charge of directing the other substitutes in organizing the library.
Though a slow process, these 5 steps have been a lifesaver for me in coming back down to Earth and reclaiming my chaotic mind. After some reflection on my secret, I realized the universality of these steps which can be used for expats returning to people processing trauma or who have simply lost control of your mind and constantly find themselves mechanically moving through life in meaninglessness.
Good luck and please share if you have any other ways you have mastered your mind or clarified your focus!