Hobby Your Way To Inner Peace

I am not wired to meditate. I know the benefits are tremendous and that, with disciplined practice, amazing results can be achieved. But I’ll be honest with you: sitting still and quietly observing each breath makes me want to rant and rave and go full-on Shia LaBeouf.

I don’t have the nature of a meditator. I have the nature of a high-strung hamster. Moreover, I’m a practical-minded person. I don’t see the need to put in months, if not years, of meditation practice if there are other ways to achieve mental clarity and calm — ways that are active, engaging, and don’t require me to fight my own temperament.

Fortunately, there are. I find that my hobbies bring me peace of mind along with that Puritanical, satisfying sense that I’m actually doing something. Here’s a few hobbies I’ve found especially helpful.

Gardening

As far as serenity-inducing pastimes go, gardening is hard to beat. It forces you out-of-doors for some serotonin-boosting sunlight and Vitamin D absorption. It encourages you to interact with and appreciate the natural world at its most beautiful: flowers, trees, a ripening vegetable garden. And the cyclical aspect of gardening — sowing in the spring for summer blooms that die back in the fall — is a comforting reminder that even though your own life is finite, existence isn’t. As Rachel Carson said, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

For me personally, gardening is calming because — oh-so-gently — it helps me to accept that results are often beyond my control. I’m a perfectionist with a low tolerance for uncertainty, so I tend to delude myself into thinking that if I simply do things Right, good things will follow. If I go to the Right School, I will land the Right Job. If I raise my kids the Right Way, they will turn out Right — you get the idea. It’s the kind of thinking that has caused me a fair amount of anxiety (but what is Right??) and disappointment (but I did everything Right!!).

Many seasons of gardening have taught me the opposite: that truly, there’s only so much you can do. You can plant the seedlings when you’re supposed to, but you can’t stop the cold snap that shrivels them all. You might coax your roses to bloom, but despite traps and sprays, the Japanese beetles munch their leaves to the spines. Sometimes, you do everything by the book — proper soil, proper water, proper light — and the fern still ups and dies.

All my gardening failures have increased my appreciation and gratitude when things do go right and I enjoy a mixed border worthy of Better Homes and Gardens. But here’s the irony: those same failures have also made me more appreciative and grateful when things go wrong — or at least, Not As I Expected.

Last summer, for example, I planted some lilies that, according to the nursery tag, were supposed to top out at two feet. Well, they reached three-plus, which really destroyed the symmetry and scale I was aiming for in my garden. I wanted to shake my fist at God at the unfairness of it all — in fact, I might have done just that. But then I had to take a step back and marvel at the audacity of those lilies, growing taller and more leggy than they had the right. They weren’t the height I had planned, or even the color, but there was no denying they put on a spectacular show. And as a parent who tries to orchestrate her kids’ lives for the most optimal outcome, it was good to realize that lilies, like children, are gonna do what they’re gonna do.

Banjo

I play the banjo badly. I am not being self-deprecating: I suck. I learned to play the piano halfway decently, owing to the fact that (1) I started lessons in my youth, when my brain was pliant, and (2) the piano keyboard is a single left-right axis that’s pretty straightforward to navigate. In contrast, the banjo — or any stringed instrument — has two axes, a fretted neck and a set of strings, that you have to traverse at the same time. When I play, I experience the same halting confusion as I did in eighth grade algebra. The result is the slowest picking you’ve ever heard, She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain rendered as a haunting dirge.

Still, even after months with little improvement, I keep playing. And that’s because I’ve realized, with some practice and what they call “finger memory”, I can occasionally pull off a series of rolls, or even a full-fledged song, with effortless ease.

The hitch is this: I play better when I’m not trying so damn hard. If I tell myself, I’m going to nail the next two bars and hit all the right notes at the right tempo, I botch it. But if I tell myself, I’m just going to play the next two bars and see what happens, sometimes I find myself actually “pickin’ and a-grinnin’”, as they say. My best playing occurs when I divorce myself from any expectations as to results, when I zone out a bit and simply experience my fingers, fretting and plucking strings.

I had heard of the concept of “zen flow”. I never imagined I would actually experience it twanging my way through Cripple Creek.

Found Photos

I love old photographs. Over the years, I’ve amassed a collection by culling through various online listings. It’s not a bad way to spend those ten-minute chunks when you’re waiting for the next assignment at work or for a kid’s lesson to end. Of course, it takes some stamina and a high tolerance for scrolling through reams of bland and unremarkable pictures. Portraits of dour 19th century couples. Snapshots of people with stiff smiles and poses. Double exposures and yellowed Polaroids.

Still, if you’re willing to wade through the boring and prosaic, your patience will be rewarded. Every now and again, you stumble upon photographs that capture something — a person, a moment, a mood — so perfectly that it’s a thing of joy.

Sometimes it’s a photo that makes you feel as if you’ve wandered right smack into an ongoing story, and you know it’s a good one:

Sometimes it’s a photo where, accidentally, everything comes together to create something beautiful, strange and unexpectedly moving. In other words, art:

On the other hand, sometimes it’s a photo that’s artistic and unexpectedly moving because the person it captures is so beautiful. Seriously, they are SO. BEAUTIFUL.

There are the photos that give you hope that love is not only possible, but enduring:

And then there’s my all-time favorites: the photos of the outliers and happy rebels, the ones who cheerfully refuse to behave themselves or stick to the narrative.

So, as you’ve probably gathered by now, collecting old photos is kind of like life — long stretches of dull and ordinary, punctuated by dazzling bits of awesomeness. It’s meditative in it’s own way, in that it trains you to look sharp and always be aware. And that’s because the greatest pictures — and the best experiences, as a matter of fact — are often right in front of you, hiding in plain sight.

Inspired? Then come see more of my collection at The Society of Distinguished Ghosts.