Every year, at the end of summer, when I go back to work (as a public school special ed teacher), all my efforts at meditation and mindfulness practice, all my cultivated calm and quiet, all my ability to live in the present, get instantly flushed down the toilet. I go back to square one. I have to start over. I wake up, sit my butt on my little half-assed mat in the office which is really a folded up blanket and a beat up couch pillow, set my timer, shut my eyes, and that’s when my brain screams from the top of its lungs (or the top of its nerve synapses), “No the hell way are you meditating right now! You are about to step into a public school minefield. You have so much sh*t to do, you’re already a week behind, you’re already behind from last year. You have papers to grade and lessons to plan and educational reviews to write and meetings to prepare for and parents to call. Get your ass up and get going and don’t even bother to try this again until late May!”
So after ten minutes of shaking and fighting, I quit meditating, get up, wipe the tears from my eyes, and enter into the chaotic world that is public schools, carrying with me the feeling that I’ll never gain control over myself. It’s hopeless. But it really isn’t. Click more to read on…
I was reflecting on this recently after listening to a great talk by Gil Fronsdale of The Insight Meditation Center. He was talking about our humanity’s constant state of distraction: “most people are so distracted, they’re too distracted to know they’re distracted.” True. He mentioned that on some retreats he’s led, people have sat down for the first silent meditation, and after a minute, have stood and run out of the building. It was their first moment of silence in years, and it was too painful. I look at my students, colleagues, and friends (and myself) and see this truth everyday. Some of us (and I’m included) live in a state of constant distraction and action—from morning alarms, to kids, to the news on TV, to the radio, to a busy office setting with phone calls and texts and emails and meetings, back home to more TV, radio, kids, conversations, newspapers, more people, all until you gratefully crash in front of a sitcom or a movie, then crash in bed. Not one silent, contemplative moment. Just constant madness.
I even hear, more and more, people who say they “thrive” on this kind of living. But I wonder—do they thrive on it, or is the alternative to scary. When you take that moment to finally sit down in silence and hear your own brain—is it just too scary, too existential. Even church is now another distraction. Great bands, flat screens, dynamic preachers. When a new student in a meditation class asked Gil Fronsdal if it was okay to meditate with a notebook, just in case she remembered something really important and needed to jot it down, he told her, very clearly, no. That would ruin the point.
But I know the pain of trying to be silent and still, when everything in your brain resists. There is a difference between just being quiet and really find silence stillness. You can sit somewhere for an hour without talking while a hurricane rages in your brain.
But I fight it. This year, it only took about a week of pushing through before I could sit down in the morning before work and feel the gaps again; small gaps, of course, infinitesimally small, but they were there: those beautiful gaps in thinking that perhaps are something like hints of awakening. (For more on this, read my post on meditation). This is almost a two-week improvement on last year.
One problem I see, though, when seeking enlightenment in the day to day world, is you have to follow the system built by the majority. And to be frank, the current public school system was designed and is now run—I believe—by people who “thrive” on the kind of constant stimulation, distraction, and action that I abhor. I agree with many wise people out there who say multi-tasking is just doing many things poorly (for a good discussion of this, check out Zenhabits), yet most of our jobs now require it. Emails, paperwork, phone calls, face-to-face, etc. We are expected to be constantly plugged in, moving, and doing. And even in my own classroom, where I should have control (most of the time), I’m still dealing with a crowd of little brains that have been hard-wired from birth by distraction and action.
Yet I refuse to believe that I have to leave the world behind to find the peace I crave. So I continue to live in the chaos, with my paltry little daily meditation as my grounding focus. If you have a minute, or twenty, or thirty, I encourage you to begin a meditation practice of your own. There are so many great places on the web where you can begin, including free podcasts and online courses. Here are a couple of options.
Give Up and Die to the idea that you have to live in constant distraction and action…you’ll be glad you did.