In Defense Of A Bad Habit

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 argueI 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.

Monster Mind

When we see a monster coming for us we know it. We don’t have to ask ourselves, “Is that a monster?” We know a monster when we see it coming and we run (unless we know it is a friendly monster). The mouth on each cheek, eyes in the back of its head, only one finger on each hand- all these things let us know that it is a monster. There is zero doubt about a monster when we see one.

But it is not so easy to recognize when we come upon a person whose mind is in such shape. Though he or she may have a great body, a perfect face, social status and be dressed very well, if their mind is disarranged it would be like they are growing hands from their head and have toes coming out of their face and chest. He or she would have a monster mind.

Often times we associate with monsters without knowing it. They are our bosses, our friends, our co-workers, our politicians, our parents, our neighbors and our partners. It could even be ourselves. Everyone knows when someone’s body appears to be very unusual but it is harder to realize when a person’s mind is twisted, warped or disarranged.

Just like we manicure our fingernails, brush our teeth and scrub our bodiesit is important that we manicure, brush and scrub our minds. If we neglect doing so we can end up with a mind that is a monster (warped, twisted or disarranged).

It is important that we are aware of our minds. That we are knowledgeable of what state our mind is in, the same way that we would know if our body or teeth were dirty.If we are not even able to be aware of the state of our mind, how can we take steps to change it? I think a monster is not aware that it is a monster. If it knew that it was a monster it would probably want to not be a monster.

It is first very important to be aware of our minds reactions to our own and other people’s actions. If we notice that our mind has become warped, twisted or disarranged (filled with judgment, worry, desire) it would be best to take steps to straighten things out.

Most people call it mindfulness. But regardless of whatever label you want to give it, mindfulness is really justactive control of your attention. Mindfulness is how we organize our mind. A monster’s attention is all over the place. Warped, twisted, disarranged and disorganized. When we become mindful we are taking control of our attention so that we can become more present and aware.

When we become present and aware we are more mindful of our five senses (our sensory experience). We don’t miss as much. We really notice things that we are hearing and seeing. We notice variations in color, shapes, textures and the various sounds that surround us. We have a heightened sense of smell and taste. We notice the action that is keeping us alive in the moment- the movement of our breathing. Our judgments, worries and desires cause us to become blind to these things and this can be because of a monster inside. By becoming more mindful we come alive.

A thief thinks he is looking all around and sees everything but really his desire makes him blind. He is unaware of his mind’s reaction to his actions; his desire dominates his mind. The very foundation of mindfulness is to be aware of our mind. To know what our mind is doing so that it does not become like a thief who ends up stealing our wellbeing and happiness away.

All we have for certain is this moment. This moment, right now. Are you fully here now? We cannot know for a fact that the next moment will come. The next moment is a fantasy in our mind. It does not exist outside our mind. This moment is real. It exists right here. So it is best to work on being fully present in this moment. When we are present and aware (not just thinking we are present and aware), we will not have a monster mind. Our mind will be clear, organized, sharp and attentive.

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Don't Fix It, Be With It!

The vast majority of people are busy seeking a cure. Deep down people don’t want to be helped, they want to be fixed. They don’t want empowerment and strength but want things to be quick and easy. They want a fix.

William Burroughs wrote that happiness is a by product of function, purpose and conflict; those who seek happiness for itself seek victory without war. You can not just think yourself happy and actually be happy if there is not authentic happiness present. Happiness is easy. We don’t need to be taught how to be happy. Mindfulness is a practice that teaches us how to suffer well. When we continue to try and think ourselves happy we remain ill equipped in managing the hardships of life.

In the self-help industry people are looking for peace and happiness just in itself. They don’t realize that you will never be without conflict and suffering. The practice of mindfulness is to learn how to work with the suffering and as a result suffer less. We suffer less when we let little victories be enough. When suffering less is good enough.  Let something help rather than always looking for a fix.

The practice of mindfulness does require continual commitment and discipline for the above reasons. To be able to be present with what is and let go again and again, requires continual practice and effort.

I think people lose their faith in mindfulness practice because they still suffer. They don’t realize that there is no end to suffering, but mindfulness helps lessen suffering. There is no being done and fixed as most want to believe. Mental health requires coming out of this fixed mindset and being ok with good enough, process, growth and the purpose that exists with just being present with what is. There is no cure. We are only done when we are dead.