Remember your high school or college Psychology 101 class and learning about Pavlov’s dogs? The idea that dogs can be conditioned to anticipate being fed…and there’s a bell in the mix, too.
Clearly, it’s not just dogs that are conditionable. For me, and I don’t believe I am alone in this, music is among the strongest sensory elements to take me back to a time or place or emotion. I’ve written about the 1995 Little Women soundtrack and what state hearing that today puts me in.
During my writing retreat, this link followed the Pride & Prejudice soundtrack I also obsessively listened to, so it is now inextricably tied in to my memories and emotional experience of those two weeks.
But it’s much more than a memory. When it came on this morning, I lost my sense of current location; it was as if my body transferred back to the farmhouse from a mere 11 days ago. I smelled the faint fuel oil and wood. I felt the hard back of the wooden dining room chair where I worked for hours every day. I sensed the incredible stillness of the country. I tasted the dirt from the surrounding gravel roads. All this despite being in my sunroom with none of those elements there.
The sensory kickback to those two weeks also lent itself to how I felt in those days. I suddenly was back in a creative flow, back in alignment with my desires. Since coming home, I’ve had to jump back into my “real life” with a ferocious pace. We produced two events in the first 72 hours I was back. We’re in the middle of our fall fundraising campaign. I’m planning for new seasons of ongoing programs and strategizing a brand new initiative.
My ability to create a blog post a day has fallen to the wayside out of necessity and some amount of guilt that I was gone and left additional work to my team. I haven’t been able to explore other ideas, take on personal challenges, capture the sunrise on livestream. I haven’t walked 9 miles a day since coming home, which means my brain hasn’t wandered much since. And that’s a problem for me.
B. Jeffrey Madoff, in his book Creative Careers, says, “When you wonder, it allow your mind to wander…I wonder about a project…Why is it interesting to me? What engages me? I allow my mind to wander so I can approach things with a sense of wonder” (99-100).
That is exactly what I need for creative inspiration and expansion—in all facets of my life, including my day job. That’s why the time away was so important and productive for me. And I’ve been concerned that I won’t be able to hold on to it out of the sheer demands and rhythm of that day job.
The only way for me to be a truly successful CEO, to actively pursue my passion projects and even tend to my personal relationships is to take the time away I need to wander and wonder. But how to capture that experience without going away for two weeks at a time fairly regularly—something that isn’t feasible for many reasons.
Perhaps it’s the intense repetition, the lack of mental demand of listening to it, the slow yet cadenced pace. It lulls me into an emotional state of memory recall. It disrupts whatever current place and state I am in to transport me back to a different experience, one that is deeply ingrained in my brain. This music triggered some kind of muscle memory of those two weeks this morning and allowed me to jump back to a different moment where time was my own and my wandering fed my wonder and nourished it beyond what I even knew it needed.
And I believe I can trust it to do this going forward based on what happens to me, nearly 25 years later, when The Little Women soundtrack comes on. Time and distance from that experience has not diminished my ability to recall minute emotional and sensory details and to feel immediately present there.
I am grateful to have this sensory trigger because I am desperate to not lose the feeling and momentum of the work I started on the retreat and the way it made me feel. At any time, for 61 minutes, I can travel to another physical and mental state—one that has my mind stretching on for miles and miles of expansive, gently rolling fields, trees swaying in the breeze, birds overhead in the deep blue of the endless sky, the smell of clover and sweetgrass drifting around me.
Do you have a sensory trigger like this? Something that takes you back to a particularly rich time in your life? Something that puts you in a meditative-like state of pure creative flow and energy? If you don’t, perhaps try listening to this music consistently for a week or two and see if it doesn’t allow your mind to wander well past what you have wondered about, what you have dreamed of.
There’s no world as fabulous as the world of our minds. I hope you take the time you need to explore it, to seek out your greatest visions and hopes and then to go about letting your mind help you begin working towards achieving them, too.
And if you want to spend some intentional time working on this, sign up for the first-ever Personal Systems Disruption weekend retreat coming in November. I’ve revised it so that it’s fewer hours on Zoom and also a lower ticket price. Tickets are limited, so get signed up today!