Sometimes I feel like a hamster–whiskers twitching (metaphorically), I explore relentlessly, in an almost manic state, seeking after something and then immediately racing after something else. I get on my little hamster wheel, running faster and faster, that squeaky wheel reminding me that if I really want to get something—anything—done, I need to keep running faster and faster.
But when the wheel starts turning very quickly, there’s no way to get off safely. The wheel is coming at me, faster and faster, requiring me to move at the pace it has set. So I move forward, unable to slow down, just to avoid getting pitched off by the inevitable thrust of centrifugal force.
Sometimes life is like that, challenges arise unexpectedly, interrupting the usually already fast pace of life with new demands. Phone calls require time and information, cars break down, health crises arise, the blaring news cycle claims my attention with warnings of social collapse, environmental disaster and political shenanigans. Faster and faster I go….until….
A few years ago, in the midst of one of what I have come to call my “hamster wheel” phases, the universe intervened. My computer crashed beyond repair, swallowing masses of work, irretrievably. A work situation went sour, closing off an avenue of professional satisfaction. Then I broke my leg while bicycling slowly through my neighborhood. What followed was surgery, hospitalization, new chunks of metal holding bits of my broken bones together and long, painful physical therapy. The universe had pushed the pause button.
Now, as I feel the urge to get on that hamster wheel again, I ask myself what I can do to gently press that pause button before the forces of the universe that call for sanity, balance and safety do it for me. I want to share a few strategies that work for me, help me find a bit of perspective, slow me down enough that I can reconnect with my inner life, that part of me whose cries for attention are too often drowned out by the squeaky wheel. Each of these is a short practice, no more than 15 minutes, based on the idea that multiple sensory inputs can get in each others’ way. They resemble some of the strategies used in classrooms full of hyperactive children, employing a variety of stimulus reduction and substitution techniques, intentionally using some of the senses we sometimes ignore to shift our attention from racing to relaxing.
- Set a timer for ten minutes. Sit on a straight back chair and close your eyes. That’s it. Don’t try to meditate or empty your mind. Don be tempted to open your eyes until the timer goes off. The reduced amount of visual input (the most intense of our sensory inputs) helps.
- Watch birds for 15 minutes, not to identify their species or coloration pattern or behavioral characteristics, but just to look at how they hop or walk or fly. This is not an exercise in bird watching, which is often focused on identification, but instead on paying attention to how birds encounter their environment. Try to put your mind behind the eyes of the birds for five minutes.
- Take a long bath or shower, or if this isn’t practical, wash your face. It is no wonder that so many spiritual traditions use water as part of transformation rituals. Being in a stream of water demands a different kind of sensory attention. Is the water temperature too hot or cold? Is the water pressure too strong or not strong enough? The shift in focus necessary to pay attention to senses in this way helps slow the wheel down.
- Set a timer for ten minutes, then spend those minutes paying attention to your acoustic environment. Close your eyes or let your focus go soft and listen closely to what you are hearing. Try to listen to the sound farthest away from you with your left ear. Then try to do the same thing with your right. Allow the sounds from far away to come closer, perhaps connecting with each other.
- Find something with a pleasant odor and enjoy smelling it: a mint teabag, sprig of rosemary, a chocolate chip cookie, shampoo. Aromas surround us. Take a deep breath, sampling those molecules that perfume our world.
- Find something to chew, like the hamsters do. Something with some resistance and substance: carrots, gum, whole wheat toast, almonds. I’ve never seen a hamster chew while running….neither should we.
When we shift the majority of our attention to sensory experiences, the inner chatter decreases, the wheel slows and we can safely, slowly and thoughtfully step off the wheel and into our lives. What are we doing when we do these practices? We are letting our senses feed our souls.
Rabbi Min Kantrowitz is a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, teaches about CryptoJews and Conversos of New Mexico for Road Scholar/Elderhostel and has private students. She directed the New Mexico Jewish Community Chaplaincy Program for 12 years, serving unaffiliated Jews throughout the state. A 2004 graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, she is the author of ?Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide?. Rabbi Kantrowitz is a former psychologist, a former architect/planner, a wife, mother and the proud Bubbie of three grandsons.