It seemed like such a simple thing: walk into a convenience store and buy a snack. But on that late winter day, simplicity was complicated.
"It's my treat," my friend Grove said. "Help yourself to anything." He had good reason to feel generous. I had just spent 97 days living alone in nearly absolute silence as a caretaker on the wilderness ranch he operated as a summer retreat center. The closest I had been to a candy bar or corn chip had been in my dreams, lying asleep in a cabin that lacked electricity, a phone, plumbing, and other essentials of modern life.
"Hey, thanks!" I replied, as we stepped out of the pickup. My voice felt rusty from lack of use. The words rasped from a faraway place.
The world inside that humble minimart was like another planet. Vaguely familiar yet uncomfortably alien, it was totally unlike the serene snow-covered landscape I had left an hour earlier. I found myself plunged too suddenly into a disconcerting swirl of sounds and a jarring kaleidoscope of colors. An unwatched TV blared in one corner, a radio in another. A loud compressor cooled a beverage locker, and a beeping cash register spit out receipts. Every inch of space, from floor to ceiling, was crammed with merchandise. Narrow aisles were filled with advertising.
I stood stock still, too stunned to move. Meanwhile, customers shuttled purposefully in and out. "Wake up, dude," snarled one fellow. "Some of us are in a hurry."
Who was he kidding? Everyone was in a hurry! The environment I had returned to was much faster and noisier than I remembered. I felt overwhelmed by stimulation and paralyzed by possibility.
"Thanks anyway," I said, shrugging, when my puzzled friend asked what treat I'd chosen. "Can't decide. I'll wait in the truck."
"You OK?" Grove asked. When I nodded sheepishly, he shook his head, then grabbed a soda and a granola bar for himself.
Of course, I was fooling myself. I was not OK. Several weeks passed before I figured out what had gone wrong. Until I did, my equilibrium remained completely off. In fact, it was the most out of balance I'd ever felt.
In the following weeks, I began to realize that there was so much more to a calm center than the soft stillness wrought by profound silence and extended solitude. Being alone in the woods showed me how the excessive stimulation of modern society makes it hard to slow down and look within. Yet isolation could not pit my quiet mind against the practical challenges of daily reality.
Two months after leaving my caretaking job, I was finally able to cope with the speed and clamor most of us confront as soon as we walk out the front door or flick on a TV set. I regained my balance and resilience by clearly focusing my awareness on the present moment, using my breath to calm my reactions, and minimizing--in a firm but gentle way--habits of attachment and judgment.
By chance, I returned to that same convenience store the summer after my first visit. The place was still too busy, too cluttered, and too loud. I didn't want to linger, yet I was able to let the waves of unbidden stimulation wash over me without drowning in them. I simply scanned the cooler for the juice I craved, strode to the counter, and paid my bill.
"Take it easy," the cashier advised in a monotone, without looking up from the magazine she was reading.
"Yes," I replied. "That's really great advice."
Richard Mahler teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction. He is the author of Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude (Red Wheel, 2003).