How a Box of Rocks Made Me Smarter—and Calmer

When we were at the beach, I noticed a stack of rocks on an old log. I have seen towers like these before, but I never really thought about them beyond noticing the inexplicably calming sense that I get from staring at them.  I find rock formations, natural or manmade, relaxing. I must not be the only one because, on the road out of Dingle, there was an Irish farmer who was charging to photograph the cairns on his property. I happily paid and I was not the only one.

In the space I had at the ocean over break, without the tether of my cell phones, laptop, or iPad, it occurred me that there must be something deeper than casual boredom turned art happening here. Clearly stacking rocks is an echo of some vestigial gene we are carrying around, like the one that makes an appendix. It is the gene that spurned Stonehenge, Easter Island, and the Inukshuk.  It goes beyond the pedestrian pursuits of creating buildings or carving historical monuments. It is much more visceral than that.

Though out of character for me, I decided to forego the research phase this time. OK, the truth is that I started the research phase and learned many reasons why you should not stack rocks in nature. Google it before you create your next granite tower. Though the biologist in me had a pang or two of guilt, I was still too curious to stop. Instead, I turned inward and did a little self-excavation. I got some rocks from my front yard and I created a rock sculpture garden on my desk.  For a week, I have been alternately toppling over and restacking rocks. While I still have no clue what draws me to do it, I am learning so much from the act.

My Stone Stress Seismograph 

There are different levels of stress. The more stress I have, the more desensitized I get to it. As a result, I accept a baseline of stress as normal. I may even see this baseline as not being stressed at all. Five towers of precariously stacked rocks next to my keyboard act like a mood seismograph. I cannot pretend when the evidence is toppling over in front of my eyes. When I get stressed and intense, I pound my keyboard and crash around my desk. There is a point at which the hammering knocks the stones over. Instead of letting that cause more stress, I am leaning into it. In the last week, I have learned to take a breath and figure out what I am feeling in the moment. What is causing me to pound the keyboard. The more awareness I bring to my feelings, the more sensitive I become to small shifts in my stone seismograph.

Wisdom of Intuition

Stacking rocks takes a completely blank mind. It is an act of intuition. I really can think of nothing else in that moment. There is a place of balance for each stone. If I am thinking about an upcoming meeting, I will not be able to sense where that spot of perfect balance is. I cannot reason the stone into place. I cannot calculate the stone into place. I must feel the stones. In the absence of the running dialog and strategic thinking, the placement of the stones is clear.

More Than One Path

When a tower topples, I have the inclination to remember exactly how it was and how I did it the last time.  As if that were not only the perfect way but the right way. Routines, though tedious, are also efficient and effective strategies for many things. However, in rock stacking, recreating is pointless. Accepting that the new formation will be satisfying allows for the possibility that it will be much more than that.

Persistence Point

There is always a way to stack a stone and being frustrated makes it much harder to find the way. I have found that the more frustrated I get with trying to “get it exactly right” prevents me from reaching that wordless place where my actions are guided by intuition and sensation rather than judgment and expectation, perceived or actual. In that place of silence, new ways to stack the stones appear that meet the goal.

Creativity Jumpstart

A state of wordlessness makes a space for creativity.  I cannot write when my head is filled with noise. Reaching that wordless place where my attention is focused on finding the sweet spot on a misshapen stone opens a door to a place filled with connections, new ideas, and beautiful words.

So, it turns out a box of rocks made me smarter and calmer this week. Give it a try. Stack some rocks. Rake some sand. Meditate. Do yoga. Stare at a sunrise. You might learn something about yourself.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

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