Modern life is stressful. The noise and the frantic pace of the city take their toll on the spirit. Everybody knows this, but the sad irony is how poorly many people deal with it. They attempt to escape from noise and commotion into more noise and commotion. The empty moments are filled with the artificial noises of electronic entertainment. In the city many escape on weekends to cottage country, but they take the city with them, and spend their afternoons out on the lake listening to the roar of an outboard motor.
The seventeenth century French philosopher Pascal said "All man's miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone." Sitting quietly and doing nothing is the essence of the oldest and most reliable therapeutic practise in the world, Buddhist meditation. The various schools of Buddhism teach a myriad of different practises but they all point in the direction of stillness and silence. A Buddhist joke says "Don't just do something, sit there." And yet anyone who's tried it can tell you just how hard it can be to do nothing.
The nature of the mind is to crave for stimulation. But the modern psyche is already over-stimulated by a constant barrage of loud sounds and enticing images. People need the healing balm of quiet and spaciousness. It may be next to impossible to find these things externally in the big city, which makes it all the more imperative to look within.
We all need to take a breath, and slow down. Whenever I visit Toronto I am struck by how much everyone seems to be in a rush. Go down into the subway and you will see most people almost running for the train. Why? There's another one coming in less than ten minutes.
There is, of course, a certain amount of stressful activity that city people must put up with to make a living. Which is all the more reason why they need to find quiet and peace outside of work. So why do people fill the empty spaces with more loud noise and near manic imagery? It could be that Pascal knew that, too, because he also said "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me."
If a person has spent their whole life filled with noise, talk and activity the first experience of being alone with themselves can be scary. The mind recoils from the unaccustomed habit of doing nothing and seeks to fill the void anyway it can. It takes patience to train it to just relax, and to be at ease with itself.
It shouldn't be imagined that by advocating the value of "doing nothing," we are suggesting slothfulness. The paradox is that you can get more useful work done from a place of stillness. If you watch someone who is very skilled at what they do you will see a beautiful economy of motion. For someone like that, every action has a purpose and there is no wasted effort. This person does her job with calmness and efficiency.
But watch someone who is in a anxiety causing situation , such as waiting for a job interview or driver's test. See how the hands and feet fidget, wasting energy. Such a person would be far better containing his motion, centering his being on stillness and just quietly doing nothing. Then when the moment arrives for action, he can perform at optimum because all his mental resources are calm and collected.
There are literally thousands of books written on various aspects of meditation and Buddhist theory. But in the last analysis, it is all very simple. Just be. Create some real quiet space in your home and in your heart. There is nothing to be done, nothing to be gained, it's just learning the knack that is tricky.
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