I recently sat a week long silent meditation retreat. The day prior, I mentioned to a colleague in an off-hand way, “Oh, it’s a short retreat – just a week.” Her response reminded me that a week of silence is anything but usual in our fast-paced, information-driven modern society.
My first meditation retreat was a three day course in India in 1997 at a small monastery. At that time in my life I wrote in a journal daily and my mind was filled with constant stream of thoughts. The idea of not speaking, reading, or writing for two whole days presented an exciting and formidable challenge. I still remember meditation periods spent writing letters in my mind, playing out conversations, and so on…
With practice the mind does get quieter over time, and we learn to have a more spacious relationship with thoughts. On this most recent retreat, though, I was noticing how difficult it can be to take a conscious break and disengage from the world, from our busy lives, from work, family – to really put things down.
For some, this might raise a number of questions: Why disengage? Isn’t that just escaping? And, what’s so hard about it anyway? Unplugging and putting the world down isn’t escaping, and it actually can take considerable effort. In fact, anyone who’s actually tried to meditate for more than five minutes can attest to the fact that it’s anything but an escape from reality!
Many people today I know can identify with feeling too busy, with being overworked, or having trouble carving out time for true rest and relaxation. When they try to unplug, they often end up instead replacing one form of activity (like work) with another, like tidying the house, reading, using a tech device.
Others I know are on the other end of the spectrum. It’s easy to put things off until tomorrow, or they fill their time with fun or sport. But putting the world down is different than just “chilling out” or taking it easy. While it can be enjoyable to watch TV or socialize over food, these activities don’t offer the kind of reflective space that meditation can create, with its potential for rest, calm, and insight.
Unplugging: Taking a Step towards Peace
When we come to any contemplative practice, one of the pre-requisites is a careful, deliberate stepping back from the flow of our lives and the world. We unplug to create space for a different kind of activity, a more subtle way of using the mind and body that doesn’t operate in terms of schedules, appointments, or deadlines. We shift from being engaged with the complexities of life to the simplicity of being.
This unplugging is followed by the patient and continual effort of meditation practice to learn how to put the world down – our entanglement with the outer world, and with the inner world of our thoughts, ideas, emotions and plans. It is this process whereby we regain clarity, composure, and some measure of peace in order to then decide how and where to re-engage more wisely.
So what actually happens when we slow down and stop doing so much? In the midst of our lives, the first thing we often notice is how difficult it can be to trust the inherent value of not doing.
We’ll often encounter messages of the dominant culture we have internalized,
“I could be getting so much done right now,” or “I don’t have the time.” I like to call this the “tyranny of efficiency.” When meditation becomes another chore on the to-do list it may be a sign that the Efficiency Tyrant has taken over!
“Activities don’t cease by completing them;
they cease when you stop.”
Have you ever noticed how the world just doesn’t seem to stop? That however much time you give to your work, your job, even the family, (fill in the blank), there’s always more to do? In the Buddhist tradition, this is what’s called samsara – which means most literally, “going around and around.” It’s the nature of the realm we live in to simply go on and on. There is a wonderful Tibetan teaching that captures this truth: “Activities don’t cease by completing them; they cease when you stop.”
Yet how often are we driven along through the course of our days by the myth that we’ll get everything done? By the promise of some future in which “it ends?” If you haven’t noticed by now, it doesn’t end – at least not by doing. (Or put another way, it ends when we die – and even that’s not for sure if there’s another life!)
So what does it take to unplug? First, there is a certain amount of determined effort and restraint required. We actually have to work against the momentum of activity to stop: to stop working, to stop tidying, to dispense for a while with all the other ways we use our time on the internet, the phone…
One analogy that begins to illustrate the use of this kind of stepping back is the story of the woodcutter who was able to chop less and less wood each day, until he took a rest long enough to notice that he hadn’t sharpened his axe in a while!
This is one way we can understand the value of what I’m calling disengaging or unplugging. Having regular time to quiet the mind and look within can recharge our batteries, balance our emotions, and sharpen our mental faculties for work. This is a utilitarian viewpoint; it makes sense, and can take us a good distance on the path. It is these qualities of attention and emotional regulation that get a lot of press these days in the sphere of secular mindfulness.
Putting the World Down
While these benefits are important, they are also secondary to the kind of inner freedom and peace offered by the Buddha’s teachings. Meditation practice goes further and offers the space to look more closely at what’s behind these very drives to do, to get or have something, to be or become somebody – and how in this compulsive reaching of the mind we overlook not only the simple gifts of being alive, but a much more subtle and profound truth about existence itself.
Once we’ve actually unplugged and allowed the physical body to cease bustling about, the real work of “putting the world down” can begin. Because this is not primarily about what we do with our body, but about what we do with our mind. As we sit in silence, the restless inner movement of the mind is revealed. We finally begin to sense the milieu, the internal atmosphere we have been living and breathing with for so long that it has become normal.
There’s a saying, “In your hometown, no one has an accent.” It’s when one leaves and travels to another region that we learn we have an accent. In other words, we need a reference point, something to offer us a reflection in order to begin to see ourselves more clearly. In the same way, it is difficult to know the “accent” or the “custom” of our mental and emotional habits. Meditation practice offers such a mirror. The silence and the practice create reference points by which this inner atmosphere is made visible and cleansed on deeper and deeper levels.
And as we sit quietly a question is revealed: why is it so hard to be at peace just sitting here? Where is the problem? Where is this inner anxiety, this stress being created? How much is really about the world “out there,” and how much is actually happening right here, in our own mind and body? And what is required to release whatever’s holding that internally generated stress in place?
The Buddha offered a very deep teaching on this when he said, “In this fathom-length body, with its thoughts, feelings and perceptions, is the world, the origin of the world, the end of the world, and the path leading to the end of the world.”
Whether we take this to mean the world in the outer sense, or the inner worlds of confusion, stress, anger, or sadness that we live in at times, the Buddha is pointing us to look in one direction for a release from their grip. It is within this very body and mind where the world ends; where the lists are complete; where life and our hearts are whole and at peace; where we can touch and know this reality directly here and now.
When we unplug from physical activities and learn to put down the world in our hearts, the restless movement of the mind itself is revealed. If we stay with this process and allow its momentum to slow, we open to the possibility of touching a profound peace through the stilling of all activities, even the activity of the mind itself.
Putting it Down, Picking it Up
One of the most common misunderstandings of Buddhism is of its essential teachings on letting go, which become misconstrued as a rejection of the world. But there is difference between letting go and rejecting or throwing something away. For example, we can hold a marble with a gripped fist, or in our relaxed open palm. The marble is still right there, we’re just not holding on to it so tightly. We can even put it down, and it will be right there ready for us to pick it up again whenever we like!
It is in this spirit that we practice the skill of “putting the world down.” Can we set aside our preoccupations, our stories of who we are and what we have to do, our anxieties or fantasies about the future, our regrets and nostalgia for the past – all of this long enough to touch and feel the beautiful reality of one free breath of life?
And as we stay with this very simple activity of sitting and breathing, certain basic truths about our hearts and minds are revealed to us. We see again and again how the mind gets caught by the world – by plans and stories, by regrets and longing, by thoughts about who we are, what should or shouldn’t be. We practice putting the world down again and again, patiently, lovingly, continuously. As many times as the mind picks up that marble, we open the fist, let it be, set it back down.
We find the patience to bear with discomfort in the body, to understand a grudge in the mind, and in so doing we develop more enduring qualities of heart and the possibility of insight. As we learn how to put things down on our meditation cushion, we bring this skill into our lives where we are able to move with more ease in the change and flows of circumstances.
There are very real, often heart-breaking problems that many of us have in our lives, and that we as a society and planet are facing. When we understand the inner workings of our own being, we can uncover a deep reservoir of stillness and care from which to engage with our lives and the world. And then, when we do choose to act, it is less from reactivity, confusion, guilt, fear or any other unconscious motive, and more from a place of wisdom and tenderness for ourselves and the other beings with whom we share this precious life.