For most of the past four years of my life, I’ve spent a little a bit of nearly every day trying to do nothing. Some five hundred hours, I estimate, that I could have spent working on a novel or writing songs or playing with my kids (or, if you ask my wife, weeding the garden, fixing the basement toilet, and painting the kitchen, which has had tape lining the window for two years). But no, I’ve been sitting on the floor, trying to watch my breath (and mostly failing), trying to be mindful (and mostly failing) trying do what the renowned teacher Krishnamurti recommends: trying not to think.
I have had very little success. So who in their right mind would do something for five hundred hours with little success and still press on. Isn’t that the definition of insanity? Well, this guy presses on (and you should too). Why?
For one thing, I’m spiritually-curious and religiously-promiscuous. I’ll try any religion once (though I’ve yet to sacrifice an animal myself, I did once dance around a cow’s head). And after all, meditation is the practice, universally used in a majority of faiths and religions. Hinduism. Daoism. Most Native American religions. And, of course, it is one of the centerpieces of Buddhism, which is a religion without a God, and perhaps that is why meditation often gets a bad rap by Christians these days. After all, eveifn Atheists meditate, so how can it be religious? But my response to Christians who don’t think meditation has a Biblical foundation is, what do you think Jesus was doing in the desert on all those forty-day retreats. Checking his iphone? Sending twitter updates?
No. He was meditating, of course. (WWJD? He’d make some good wine, take a forty-day vacation, and retire by the age of thirty-three).
There are a myriad of meditation forms and practices, and it would be silly for me, a very poor meditator, to embarrass myself by trying to explain any of them. Just consider this a little propaganda that encourages you—Atheist, Agnostic, or devoutly religious—to waste your time like I do. It really has changed my life.
I mostly do mindfulness meditation, which I think is an ironic title, since my impression (which is probably wrong) is that the whole point of mindfulness meditation is to stop using the mind. I sit for twenty minutes or more a day and try to turn back the hands of evolution. I try to take our greatest asset, our thinking and planning and analyzing brain, and I try to turn it off. Sometimes it works, usually it doesn’t. For a minute or two (more like a second) I’ll be immersed in the present, focused on my breath, one with life—then my brain resists and I’m back watching the awful channel of thoughts that endlessly runs through my brain. Let’s be honest and admit that, as Spiritual Teacher Jack Kornfield points out, most of what we think is pretty lame. Reruns. The same old crap. Worry about the future. What should I do? What should I wear? Or worse, rehashing the past: I can’t believe I did that, she said that, or this happened. I’m pissed. I’m scared. I wish I could eat a hamburger and have sex. I wish I didn’t become a lawyer (or, in my case, I wish I did). I should have taken that job in St. Louis. It would be one thing if our thoughts were original or interesting—and on some rare occasions, they are—but mostly they’re reruns. Literally, reruns. The same thought, again, and again, and again.
And that’s where my failure as a meditator has turned into a small success over the last year. As I’ve failed to turn off my thoughts each day, I’ve become painfully aware of how trite, pathetic, and useless a lot what runs through my brain really is. It’s humiliating to be aware of your thoughts, especially when they’re as bad as mine are. How much of my time really is wasted thinking about hamburgers and sex? I mean, it’s not like I don’t get to eat hamburgers and have sex—I shop at Costco and have a beautiful wife (who occasionally lets me have sex after eating a hamburger). And not just hamburgers and sex, but all the worries about things that never end up happening, all the petty jealousies over stuff I can’t change, all the resentment and bitterness for stuff that’s long over. Turns out, it’s not the not thinking that has been a waste of my time, it’s the thinking.
Of course, I do love to think, to create, to analyze. That’s the whole point of this blog, this life in fact. We humans have this great gift. But I also love to not think. I’ve learned to treasure those rare seconds when my mind empties, and then, in a strange way, it opens up. Those are the beautiful moments of meditation.
Some of the most beautiful moments happen when I’m not in meditation. They happen throughout the day, when I suddenly become aware of my thoughts in a way I never used to. And this awareness is powerful. You can actually stop a thought before it sinks to deeply—stop a thought of resentment before it takes hold, stop a thought of anger before it takes flight. When these moments hit and I stop a thought, I feel like that scene in the Karate Kid when the kid realizes all that waxing and washing and painting has turned him into a super ninja. Except I’m not a super ninja, just a dude with an empty head, for a second. But it’s awesome.
And then I remember: I should eat a hamburger and have sex.
It’s a work in progress.
GIVE UP thinking for a few minutes a day AND DIE to the idea that every thought has to be thought. You’ll be glad you did.
**For some real information about meditation, check out Gil Fronsdal’s podcasts at www.audiodharma.org. He’s a teacher out of The Insight Meditation Center. He offers a full, six-week podcast class that introduces the practice of mindfulness meditation.