I have half an hour before viewing yet another house. So my mind is half on that and half sitting at my desk doing what I call ‘flicking’. Flicking through emails, half setting up a bank payment and then changing my mind when I see how much is in my account, checking my ‘to do’ list and not quite settling on doing any one thing. Before I know it the time has gone all but a few minutes. Sound familiar?
This time the few minutes is going into starting this blog because I’m trying to be more conscious of this time wasting habit. It can have the positive function of helping me settle to one thing rather than expecting the mind to instantly ‘perform’. The novelist Doris Lessing found procrastination activities (which included a post-breakfast nap) essential to her writing process. But it can also be a symptom of something Subhuti calls being ‘occupied without being engaged’.
This phrase, from one of his talks on ‘Just Sitting’, really resonated with me. As well as all sorts of internet activities it can be when I’m reading a book even though I know it isn’t that great or well written or interesting but I keep going with it. It might be dull but the mind wants to be occupied. Substitute your own poison – it could be TV, box sets, magazines, internet stuff, snacks…
Subhuti says the mind that is fed in this way will tend towards addiction, seeking more occupation and stimulation but without true interest and engagement. I recognise this from my own strong compulsion towards reading and not always having an eye to quality. I read everyday and I never go away, even overnight, without a book. Now I own a kindle I have several hundred books always and instantly available.
There is ‘dukkha’, a subtle dissatisfaction, in this lack of engagement but the activity tends to cover it up. The way to interest and engagement isn’t to force me to do something from my to-do list or some meaningful activity. Instead, I have to be prepared to be with this somewhat bored mind without the cover up TV, book, Facebook, on-line news etc.
So it’s prompted me to use the time in a different way. I’ve taken to lying on the couch sometimes when I feel the urge to retreat into a novel. Also when I’ve got resistance to ‘doing’ the various things on my list. I do nothing and stay with the unoccupied and unengaged mind. It’s actually quite satisfying. After half an hour or so, watching my thoughts and feelings the mind quality brightens and becomes more aware and I’m usually ready to engage with a writing assignment or a stash of emails.
It is as if the mind knows it doesn’t want to be so occupied. It needs time, more time than I give it, without stimulation. It seems to like having a bit more space. It can then think its own thoughts and think new things about its experience. I’ve enjoyed investigating this mind quality. I recognise an aspect connected with the fetter of ‘rites and rituals’. A sliding through life filling up time where even useful and beneficial activities can become just things to get done. ‘Going Through the Motions’ mind. It takes just a little more effort to be alive to my life and even on occasion to be surprised by it.
There’s a series of novels I love (and definitely worth reading) called The Skull Mantra series by Eliot Pattison. They are set in Tibet and one of the characters is a Lama who has spent most of his life meditating in high mountain caves. After a visit to the towns of the plateau, he talks about the worldly mindset as ‘living to be old, not true’. He is baffled by a life where it seems people just want to safely navigate to its end.
For a while, this was my mantra. I wanted to live to be true, not old. To live a meaningful life, an engaged life. A life that took risks and stood up for things I hold dear. Regularly spending time with a mind that isn’t present and that clocks off into mediocrity doesn’t fit. So what is going on?
When I 21 I was involved in a skydiving incident. It was one of those situations where I wasn’t hurt but I very nearly died. At the moment I realised I was going to die I was falling at terminal velocity (about 200km/120mph) and visible was a breadth of horizon indicating I was far too close to the ground. After the thoughts ‘dead, death, dying’ had whipped through my mind, in one compressed fraction of a moment, I remembered I had a reserve parachute and pulled the rip cord.
On a standard safe jump, the parachute should be open 1,800 feet above the ground. Mine was open approximately 100 feet from the ground. Treetop height according to some observers. It was about as low as you can go and survive.
Until the moment I pulled the rip cord I’d always thought I had a fairly wispy hold on life. I would have described myself as not having a strong survival instinct and I took a lot of physical risks to try to feel more alive. But once I’d escaped from the ‘brain lock’ paralysis, into the present moment and understanding of my predicament, there was an immediate reaction; I banged out that reserve.
I wanted to live. In Buddhist terms – bhava tanha, wanting to become (again) or to persist. To have a future. But what I was more familiar with in myself was – vi bhava tanha. Negation, not wanting to become or to persist. To stop existing. I think there are hints of the nihilist worldview in being occupied without being engaged, without caring enough what happens to us or our world. In practice, we talk a lot about desire and craving. With vibhava and in nihilism there is the desire not to be. Not to exist. A turning away from engagement with life. Just getting through it.
In most of us this won’t manifest in its extreme of suicide but in moments of malaise, depression, pleasure seeking or a feeling of meaninglessness. The power of mental and emotional habits. It’s hard to touch the preciousness of life in these moments if we’re not aware of them and just go with the habit or resist it. Taking the time to connect with such moments of boredom and disinterest ironically can enrich experience and bring and measure of joy and meaning.
This is why I’m alive!