Posts tagged ‘Non-doing’

The Great Escape: Fleeing From Ourselves

Enlightenment is just intimacy with all things.”
~ Eihei Dogen

 

FleeingThe “shocking” reality

According to a study by a team led by Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia published in Science July 4, 2014, most people prefer to do something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative. To examine this, hundreds of participants were left in a bare room by themselves for 6 to 15 minutes with nothing to do: no phones, books, pens, or distractions of any kind. Just stay awake, be quiet, and sit idly in their seats. In one last experiment, 67 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women chose to administer a mild electric shock to themselves rather than finish the process. Beforehand, when given a sample, most said they’d pay $5 not to be zapped again — but when the time came, they still pushed the button. “The mind is designed to engage with the world,” Wilson says in a news release. “Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world.” The team is working on the exact reasons why people find it difficult to be alone with their own thoughts.

The outcome of this study does not surprise me; however, I am disturbed by it. It reveals a universal, not merely personal, reality about the human condition in our current culture: that so many people would rather inflict pain upon themselves than be present with their direct experience. And, recognizing this inability to tolerate being with ourselves brings up a profound sadness in me. If we have such an aversion to allowing an intimacy with ourselves, then how can we encounter genuine intimacy with others?

How do you avoid being with yourself?

If you are truly honest, you will find that you, too, along with the vast majority of people, spend the better part of your life escaping yourself. We all employ strategies to preoccupy ourselves instead of being present with our experience. Here are just some of the ways we may do that:

  • Misusing substances: drugs (prescription and non-prescription), alcohol, food, etc.
  • Consuming electronics and media: TV, phone, computer (e-mail, social media, web surfing), news, etc.
  • Sleeping (as a means of avoidance instead of nourishment)
  • Staying Mentally Preoccupied: worrying, fantasizing, planning, ruminating, replaying, losing ourselves in memories/nostalgia, etc.
  • Staying Busy: working compulsively, exercising compulsively, cleaning compulsively, talking compulsively, socializing compulsively, etc.

These are all merely ways to keep ourselves distracted – rather than experiencing any potential dissatisfaction with the way things are in the moment. As Pablo Neruda asserts in his poem Keeping Quiet, “If we weren’t unanimous about keeping our lives so much in motion, if we could do nothing for once, perhaps a great silence would interrupt this sadness, this never understanding ourselves and threatening ourselves with death.” If you are willing to take a sincere look at your own behaviors, you may find a tendency to avoid intimacy with yourself by staying otherwise engaged using some of these strategies, albeit unconsciously. Moreover, once aware, you may begin to notice how these ways of being are actually self-destructive (not serving you) rather than promoting your well-being. For example, the simple habit of quickly checking your email before going to bed and unintentionally finding yourself on the computer for another hour or more, may be consistently robbing you of much needed sleep. At best, these strategies provide us with temporary relief. Ultimately, they are, instead, contributing to our suffering – we are causing harm to ourselves and, perhaps, also to others.

From what, or rather, whom are we escaping?

This is a question for which I do not have an answer. However, my best assessment is that we are afraid of what we might find, or not find, if we really take an honest look at our experience. The words of Alison Luterman in her poem, Stripping, suggest this underlying, existential fear:

“I want to strip.  It is the jewel at the center I seek;
let me be oyster, hoarding pearl.

Let me be coal, sheltering diamond.
Though in my heart of hearts I am afraid

I may be onion, each white circle
of stinky tears hiding another exactly like it.

Or rose: whose petals are her everything.”

How do we develop greater intimacy with, instead of fleeing from, ourselves?

People travel near and far in search of beautiful places and satisfying experiences. They surround themselves with luxurious comforts of accommodations, fine food, sumptuous things, or awe–inspiring natural settings. And yet, any satisfaction that may be experienced is fleeting, because “Wherever you go, there you are.” No matter our attempts, we can’t escape ourselves. Therefore, the way to develop intimacy with oneself is to simply meet your direct experience instead of creating separation. Start by inhabiting your body. This is the first foundation of mindfulness practice – mindfulness of body. Begin by bringing awareness of your body as a whole, specific sensations in your body (such as contact), and particularly, the experience of the breath occurring in your body. Whenever you notice your mind engaging in thoughts, no matter how frequently, bring your attention back to the experience in your body. This is a skill that we cultivate, not an intellectual process.According to Dogen, the path to realization is through the body. The human body, for Dogen, is not a hindrance to the realization of enlightenment (end of suffering); it rather serves as the vehicle through which enlightenment is realized by the aspirant. Dogen argues that those aspiring to become enlightened   strive with their bodies, practice seated meditation with their bodies, understand with their bodies, and attain enlightenment with their bodies.

The Buddha pointed out that we tend to give more importance to “thoughts” in the hierarchy of experience, yet a thought is no more important than the sensation in your small toe. As Kabir instructs,
Don’t go outside your house to see flowers.
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
Inside the body and out of it,
Before gardens and after gardens.”

This very thing we are trying to escape is actually our one true refuge. Therefore, staying connected to your direct experience through your body is one of the best ways to minimize suffering in your day-to-day life.

“Be at peace with your own soul,
Then heaven and earth will be at peace with you.

Enter eagerly into the treasure
house that is within you,

And you will see the things that are in heaven;
For there is but one single entry to them both.

The ladder that leads to the Kingdom
is hidden within your soul…

Dive into yourself and in your soul
And you will discover
The stairs by which to ascend.”

~ Saint Isaac of Nineveh

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September 29, 2014 at 10:50 am 4 comments

The Sweetness of Doing Nothing (La Dolce Far Niente)

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
~Blaise Pascal

Doing NothingHave you ever wondered where the emphasis on staying busy comes from?

In the United States, the Puritan (or Protestant) Work Ethic is alive and well, some might say run amok. Protestants were originally attracted to the qualities of hard work and frugality, as well as social success and wealth, because these were thought to be two important consequences of being one of those elected or predestined to be saved; thus, Protestants were supposed to strive for reaching them. This mindset became wide spread; the Protestant work ethic is often credited with helping to define the societies of Northern Europe and other countries where Protestantism was common, including here, in the United States. For example, Proverbs 10:4 of the Holman Christian Standard Bible states, “Idle hands make one poor, but diligent hands bring riches.” Likewise, there are several German proverbs that echo this sentiment, such as: “The devil makes work for idle hands.” Thus, in the United States, it is common for people to feel we are not worthy if we are unable to account for our time with measurable results.

Making a case for downtime
Winnie the Pooh has quite a bit of wisdom to share with children and adults alike. In regard to keeping busy, Pooh makes the assertion, “Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” (from Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, inspired by A.A. Milne) We can also review the Old Testament (Gen. 2:2) as a reminder, lest we forget, that God rested on the seventh day of creation. In fact, Conservative and Orthodox Jews still observe the Sabbath by resting from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It was only a few decades ago, if any of you were around then to remember, that stores were not open on Sundays to support a day of repose and being with family. Taking such a break can be a reminder that we are not indispensable. Moreover, it can validate for us that the earth will not stop rotating if we take a break from meeting the demands that face us. These demands can be met “all in good time.”

The reality is that not taking enough downtime has detrimental effects:

  • We may become more stupid.
    Constant activity keeps our bodies in a state of heightened stress arousal. In this state, our fight or flight reactivity, our ancient reptilian brain, is dominating our thoughts and behaviors. Thus we have less access to the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain unique to human beings, where our executive functioning (rational thought, judgment and creativity) reside. Taking opportunities to bring ourselves out of stress arousal into greater balance allows us to utilize the intelligence that sets us apart as humans.
  • There are mental health risks to not taking enough vacation from work.
    A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (2013, August 2) concluded that employees who work long hours with high job demands are more likely to develop depression. And a 2005 study by the by the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin found that women who took vacations were less likely to suffer from depression than their counterparts who did not. Ultimately, burn-out and resentment can build when we don’t feel rewarded for overextending our energy, going beyond our limitations.
  • Productivity and job retention may suffer.
    The constant pressure to do more with less, coupled with the belief that being busy means we’re important, is creating an unsustainable pattern. It is worth questioning an unconscious belief that working more makes us more productive. As a case in point, when entrepreneur Henry Ford decreased the workweek of his employees from 48 to 40 hours per week, he found that their productivity actually increased.  Likewise, An internal study done by major accounting firm Ernst & Young in 2006 found vacation time was actually correlated with stronger performance. It concluded that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their performance reviews from supervisors were 8 percent higher the following year. The study also found that employees who took vacation time were less likely to leave than their presumably burnt-out counterparts.       In my own study of business people who meditate, one of the themes that arose from those who maintained long-term meditation practice was a sense that they were more productive at work, not less, and without adding more time on the job.
  • Health may suffer.
    There is greater understanding that working too much is simply not healthy. Luckily, when we take time away, these effects are mitigated. For example, the Framingham Heart study (a massive longitudinal research program started in 1948) reported that when workers take annual vacations, their risk for a heart attack is reduced by 30% in men and 50% in women.

Thus, there is no need to feel guilty for taking time off of “doing.” For many people, staying busy has become a way of avoiding what you are feeling, especially discomfort or pain (physical or emotional). On the other hand, non-doing gives you an opportunity to meet what is there without judgment and address it more effectively. From this state, you are better able to utilize the executive functioning of your brain (the rational thought, creativity and judgment) and can tap into the inner wisdom that is inaccessible when you are constantly stimulated. As Joseph Campbell stated, “You must have a place to which you can go in your heart, your mind, or your house, almost every day, where you do not owe anyone and where no one owes you – a place that simply allows for the blossoming of something new and promising.”   Moreover, taking time out is an act of self-care rather than selfishness. When you are renewed and feeling more balanced, you are in a better state to respond effectively to the demands in your life.

How to take time to do nothing
Follow Rumi’s advice, “A little while alone in your room will prove more valuable than anything else that could ever be given you.”
Schedule time for yourself in your calendar on a regular basis and keep the appointment with yourself.
Take time when arriving somewhere to sit quietly before initiating your activity.
– Take a few minutes between completing tasks as transition time.
– Set up a Sabbath-like period in which you do not engage in “work” activity.
– Set boundaries on TV time, computer time (periodically turn off your phone and email).

What are ways that you carve out time for non-doing? Please share your ideas with so I can enlighten others.

“You do not need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen, simply wait.
Do not even wait, be quiet, still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked,
it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
~ Franz Kafka

June 27, 2014 at 3:35 pm Leave a comment


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Julie Forbes, Ph.D. photo
Julie Forbes, Ph.D.

STRESS MANAGEMENT
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© Julie Forbes, Ph.D. and Minding Your Stress, 2013.

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