Don’t just do something, sit there. -A popular mindfulness saying.
Over the holidays I was staying at a family member’s house. One afternoon I was practicing meditation and the family member (who will remain unnamed) walked into the room and asked me what I was doing.
Now look, I assume that if we come upon a person putting out a fire we know what they are doing. We don’t have to ask. I thought the same applied to a person meditating but I guess I was wrong.
I felt a wave of anger rise up in me. “Didn’t he see I was meditating?” “Why would he interrupt me with such a dumb question while I am meditating?” “Really?” Thoughts like these ran through my mind until I turned towards him and answered his question. “I am meditating, what the hell does it look like I am doing?”
“But you are just sitting there doing nothing,” he replied.
I know not to argue with the color blind about color but I told him that meditation was hardly doing nothing. A slight back and forth ensued and ended by him saying, “Well it seems like a bad habit to me.”
When he left I continued on with my meditation but what he said to me kept swimming through my mind. “Meditation is a bad habit?” “Really?” “The fact that I am sitting here following my breathing and not really doing anything on a Monday afternoon is a bad habit?” I had never contemplated these things before. I had never thought of meditation as a bad habit.
And then I thought about it some more.
The man who interrupted me is always doing something. He is continually on the go. Can’t stop until the end of the day, at which point he plops down in front of a television and soon falls asleep. Granted he is a very wealthy man, an accomplished man but a man who is always on the go. Always with some sort of problem to solve. A man in a constant state of busyness within himself.
The opposite of the kind of man I want to be.
I can see how meditation could be seen by many busy Americans as a bad habit. In America, accomplishment or achievment is what is valued most. Being and staying busy is seen as a great virtue. Hell, I often hear people talking about being busy as if they were talking about some award they just won. I have never understood this. I doubt that at the end of a life a person will be happy that they were always busy. But I could be wrong.
Everyone in America seems to be continually on the go. I mean listen to all those cars. Have you ever walked around a suburban neighborhood on a weekday afternoon? No one is hanging out. No one is home except the gardeners. We are a culture that values being on the go, making plans, doing something and staying busy. We are expert at leapfrogging over the present moment.
An idle mind is the devil’s playground is a saying I often hear espoused by those who like to stay busy. I would argue that a mind which is not allowed to idle for a period of time is the devil’s playground, but who am I to argue. I mean I spend time every day doing absolutly nothing. And I love it. It is my form of rebellion against the symptoms of busyness.
But really, a mind that is not allowed to idle will be a mind that is restless and able to find no calm or clarity. There will be little composure and a steady stream of issues and problems.
There is nothing wrong with being busy and accomplishing things. Obviously you would not be reading this if I did not value working, accomplishing and being focused on various tasks. But what is the state of mind that we want to be in while doing these things?
I realize that writing this essay is not going to ultimately make me feel calm and at peace. I also realize that all the other things I preoccupy myself with accomplishing are not going to make me feel calm and at peace. Not for long at least. It is the state of mind that we bring to whatever it is that we do which makes all the difference in what we do. It is not about waiting to be done with things to feel calm and focused but bringing this state of mind to whatever we do.
And without engaging in a practice that trains our mind to be idle, calm and focused in this overly stimulated world, our minds will be restless and all over the place, no matter what we achieve.
I don’t know about you but if I am undergoing surgery, flying on an airplane, at the dentist, with a therapist, in an Uber or engaging in any kind of interaction with another human being I would rather it be with someone whose mind is focused and calm even though they are busy and under stress. It just makes for a more quality interaction.
So, if meditation is a bad habit then I am going to defend this bad habit. It is the only bad habit I know of that restores equanimity, calm and focus to an organ (the brain) which is normally in a state of complete disarray.
And if what much of the scientific research suggests is correct, then it is only when our brain is in an equanimous and homeostatic state that all the other organs in our body can enter a state of health.
A bad habit that cultivates health and peace of mind is a bad habit I am happy to have and defend. Hopefully the society I live in will catch up soon enough and people will come to value an idle mind for brief periods of time everyday so that I will no longer have to be disturbed during my meditation practice while staying in family member’s homes.