Reclaiming my commute for creativity

Commuting is my least favourite time of day. I become aggressive, petty and stuck in dozens of micro-power struggles. It takes me almost 1.5 hours a day to commute one way. That is 3 hours in a crammed, sweaty, passive aggressive sauna with hundreds of other miserable commuters who are going through personal hell. It’s criminal that 1.5 hours of my most clear-headed, productive and creative hours are spent in this Purgatory. I can make it shorter, but the alternative leaves me feeling traumatised it’s so busy. So I vow to make the most of my commutes and reclaim them as a site of creativity.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

Ways of looking

So much of creativity comes down to a way of looking. It’s about noticing and experiencing time in a non-transactional way. With the constant pressure to be busy and the never ending source of distractions offered by the internet, this way of looking (and listening) is under threat unless I make the effort to change it.

Introducing the daydream walk

It’s a 25-30 min walk to my preferred tube station. It’s actually one of the most enjoyable times of my day. So I’m going to embrace this time as my daydreaming time.

This will be the time I let my thoughts actively wander and decompress – so I can allow my mind to make connections it wouldn’t usually do. This is also a good time for podcasts, but I’ll make the effort to have sound-free walks at least once a week, so I can daydream without having my thoughts crammed with other viewpoints.

It’s also a nice cool down on the way back from work. Even though I often want to rush this, it’s also one of the few bridges I have been sitting in front of a screen to work… and then sitting in front of a screen to wind down.

Be curious about other people 

The biggest problem I have is dealing with the stress of hundreds commuters. I’m a small woman of colour who often feels shunted around and imposed upon by bigger, more entitled, commuters. While this is objectively true sometimes, it’s also not as common as I often perceive it to be. I often fixate on how I think others see me: weak, passive, easy to invade. So I become defensive by default. I forget the kindness of my fellow Londoners and the solidarity I should have with them.

So instead of being frustrated when I am hit by crowds, I’m going to use this as a way of looking and noticing. As I scan people, I want to notice at least one thing about them, even if it’s just noting their mood. People often try to fit in but even the most “normal” looking person can be eccentric when you really notice them. It’s the kind of curiosity I had about people when I was writing creatively as a teenager or a student. You’re always looking for details.

This gif is so me throughout my commute

Take the long way round

Let’s face it. A lot of the frustrations I have with my commute is that it takes so long. After work, commuting and chores, I have less leisure and creative time than commuting (and that’s without kids). So I’m going to reclaim this commuting time as writing and reading time. 
I can shave off 20 mins of my commute if I take the crowded route. But this means I’m crammed in a tight space, changing several times, unable to do anything except listen to music for relief. I like listening to music but it also has a numbing effect. I also become the monster I don’t want to be. 

Reading and writing hour

And so instead I’m going to reclaim commuting time as reading and writing time. The longer route mean I’m more likely to get a seat and I can spend at least 20 minutes of uninterrupted writing and reading time. That’s so precious.

While smartphones can often be pacifying escapist machines, soothing societal anxieties in even worse, more anxiety-inducing ways, I’m going to use my smartphone as a way of reclaiming my commute creatively. The WiFi on the tube is actually terrible. So being on a tube is actually a good time to write – like being on a plane.

Reclaiming time

If I manage to spend an hour of my time commuting to read or write, spend 50 minutes daydreaming, then I reduce that wasted, dead time to just one hour and ten minutes. That still sounds like a lot, but it means that I’ve clawed back an out for creativity and learning in a way I wouldn’t otherwise have time for. Admittedly there will be days when it’s so busy I won’t be able to do this, but I just have to let those go and accept them.

And with that, this is the first blog entry that I’ve written on the tube. It is more complete and focused than usual. Time to say goodbye to the miserable, 3 hour round commute. And time to embrace the joy of writing and creativity! 

I stopped meditating 6 weeks, here’s what happened

I’ve been on edge lately. When I’m down, I claw myself out after a few days. But that’s not happened lately. Lately I’m overwhelmed by little things: mounting messages on WhatsApp, basic interactions with friends and colleagues, making decisions.

This is partly because the past month has been stressful: I pushed myself to do things that are challenging such as public speaking and facilitating workshops over a hundred people. The hyper-levels of excitement, anxiety and imposter syndrome scooped out my confidence. The smallest things felt like they were eroding me, leaving me exhausted and full of dread. I just wanted to do nothing for weeks. 

But now I’m  doing nothing by being on holiday, I’ve noticed that there’s an ocean of sadness in my empty moments. I feel numb and locked out of lightness and joy. The ‘existential void’ seems more real instead of an eye-rolling joke. 

I realised that this began happening around the same time I stopped meditating. 

Why I started meditation

In search of calm

I’d been meditating for almost a year. I started transcendental meditation after a bout of insomnia and impulsive decision-making last year. I read ‘How to Catch a Big Fish’ by David Lynch. So, in my impulsive fashion, I booked the expensive training I couldn’t afford. I was disappointed by how the teachers seemed to lack the zen they seemed to brag about. But I did it anyway.

After my second day meditating, I had the best night’s sleep in years. It was pure blackness.

I’d tried mindfulness meditation before. But I couldn’t maintain the habit. The sessions were poor quality, especially when I used Headspace (I just did those meaningless 1 minute meditations to keep up my run streak). 

But transcendental meditation was a lot easier to do. There was no effort, time passed more quickly and it was fun to experience. I often got to watch my thoughts dissolve into colours and images. I meditated twice a day for twenty minutes for three months, before dropping down to once a day. 

I moved flat, which meant my commuting time doubled. When I got back into a new routine, it was hard to justify 40 minutes a day on wellness. After commuting, working, eating, staying on top of life admin, I have 3 hours of leisure time a day (and that’s without kids). Spending almost an hour of that on meditation feels self-indulgent. Where do you fit in the side hustle, writing, reading, watching films, exercise, meeting friends, wedding prep, reading up on the world? 

When I dropped down to 20 minutes, I found it most useful for sleep. I also noticed that it would give me 20 minutes of high quality focus after meditating.

Why I stopped, and what happened

But around 6 weeks ago, I found I couldn’t meditate. Those twenty minutes were overwhelmed and disrupted by anxiety. I couldn’t sleep. I began to doubt whether meditation had any impact on my wellness at all.

So I stopped. At first, I didn’t think there were any effects. I was happy for the time I got back. I read before bed instead. I ‘replaced’ meditation with exercise. As I didn’t notice any changes for a couple of weeks, I assumed that it was fine to stop.

But sometimes you don’t realise the benefit of something until you’ve stopped. I found that meditation doesn’t add to your life in so far as it helps to alleviate more negative elements of life. I can’t say I felt more calm or more present, but I could say it reduced sleeplessness, that I experienced less anxiety, that my heart rate was lower and that I was less distracted directly after meditating.

I’d taken for granted the benefits I got from transcendental meditation. I think this is partly because self-help gurus promise too much from meditating. They claim that it can slay anxiety and depression, prevent heart disease, lead to a fulfilling life and even lead to world peace. And when it fails to live up to those promises, it feels like bunkum. I’ve personally found its effects subtle. It makes life less worse — and that’s enough reason to do it.

Beginning again

I meditated for the first time in a while today. My mind was a mess: there were no pretty images, thoughts were flying everywhere. My mind was a cubist painting. I wasn’t sure whether it had much of an impact. But I was focused enough to write this blog post. And so I’m going to start again and test my hypothesis that meditation helps to keep the existential void at bay.

Staring at the hills, seeing admin

This morning I woke up in Tuscany. I stared into the hills. The tall grass scratched my ankles. Flies buzzed around the wildflowers. Breakfast was black coffee, honey-drizzled yoghurt, crusty bread soaked with fresh cherry tomatoes and olive oil.

This is my (pre)honeymoon*, but there was a relief getting back to my wedding admin and laptop. There is something comforting about the small pose of being hunched in front of familiar digital landscapes: email, Pages, Spotify. It was a relief to email the caterer, the florist, the photographer for the wedding.

In fact, as looked out into famous landscapes, I felt bored after a few minutes. Have I forgotten how to do ‘leisure’? When I make the time to do nothing, to let my mind wander, my mind wanders towards the future: to small tasks I have to do in the near-present.

Fields somewhere in Tuscany

I’m staying in a remote farmhouse: white-washed walls, wooden doors, archways, dark beams. Our room is called ‘Leonardo da Vinci’. There is an easel with squeezed out paint tubes. Even though we are in idyllic countryside, aggressive sheepdogs patrol the farms. They bark and circle you, so you cannot pass until the owners grab them. Throw stones at them or feed them, the woman at reception told us.

The surrounding towns are quiet, around 20-30 minutes by car. Few people seem to be around in the afternoon except for large groups of old men. They play games. The paths are rough, hard to walk on. I feel isolated. As I walk through tall grasses and bright flowers, I chastise myself: why can’t I be more mindful? Why can’t I enjoy the present? How do I enjoy this?

The conversations we have with people are the highlight. Yesterday, after being rounded by up barking sheepdogs, we were invited by the family who owned the farm. My partner gesticulated like a very precise mime. We communicated for almost an hour over ricotta and another type of cheese made of sheep’s milk.

At times it feels like a pre-tech era. Almost no one is on their smartphones in public spaces. I crave media. It’s so quiet. Usually frustrated at how my attention is hijacked by Twitter and the Guardian, I’m relieved that they exist, that they are easy to access. I don’t check them a lot. I’m good at staring into space. But I can’t deny how painful and unpleasant boredom feels.

I want to control my environment by researching the names of the towns. I want to download the Airbnb app and seeing if there are any events nearby (there won’t be). Most of all, I want to plan in detail what to do next. I take pictures.

This solitude and quietness that Cal Newport writes glowingly about in ‘Digital Minimalism’ seems overrated. I often talk up the benefits of boredom and solitude. But my daydreams are pleasureless and uninteresting at the moment. They feel different in an isolated farmhouse.

Instead I stare hard into flowers and hills and ask: ‘How can I enjoy this more?’ Not being able to enjoy the simple pleasures of flowers and hills feels like a character flaw. Isn’t this what the good life is supposed to be? Simplicity? Quiet? Stillness? Self-development is often about being at ease with yourself. But I’m not at ease.

  • A pre-honeymoon is where you have your honeymoon before the wedding, because it’s not convenient to have a holiday after the wedding. Or that’s how I’m treating it.

Hi, I’m Min

And I have entered the chat (after hiding for a few years)

I miss anonymity. I miss beginning a new blog every few years, choosing the name, the avatar, spending hours tweaking the theme. Since I started using my real name on the Internet (after Facebook came on the scene), I haven’t felt able to express myself. Being yourself online is a branding exercise, an extension of a job you don’t get paid for.

Why am I doing this?

  • I love writing without anxiety
  • I’m going through a lot of changes right now
  • I want to document my life in a meaningful way

So why am I writing this instead of a personal journal? Since I was 16, blogs have been my personal journal. I have notebooks full of scribbles. But I rarely return to those pages. I regret the lack of order. The sentences that are half-finished. The unreadability of my handwriting. The messiness. But public blogs come with a certain responsibility: the responsibility to finish a sentence before you can hit publish. The effort that comes with forming one paragraph after another on a theme.

Secondly, I’ve grown a lot since my last blog. I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I was 5 years old. I’ve tried hard to be recognised through my words, to be a success in the online world. But now I want the opposite: I want the freedom to be ignored. The rest of my digital life is focussed on proving how successful I am, how professional I appear, how “normal” and how “competent”. I want to create a space where I don’t have to be anything.

I used to think stats on blogs were bad: but they’re nothing compared to ‘likes’ and ‘followers’.

The Internet used to be the place where I felt I could be free. Since Facebook, and the onset of having to perform for people I know IRL, the internet has become an extension of all the masks you have to put on in a crowd. It’s full of obligation. A lot of that is just to do with getting older. But thinking back to what I liked most about the retro internet, blogging was a huge part of that. I used to make friends as part of Livejournal. But the main places to find your communities seem to be visual and tied to your identity and appearance, like Instagram.

I also struggle with the instant feedback and metrification of Twitter and Instagram. They are in control of me, no matter what benefits come from being able to keep up with my friends’ projects and lives. I can only be honest in certain contexts: what I’m doing, how happy I am. I have to hide the exhaustion, the overwhelm. The anonymous blog has always been the perfect confession booth.

And so I begin another confession booth, like opening up a new notebook and making the first marks on a blank page.