Some Of Us Would Do Anything To Avoid Doing Nothing

Kathryn Dillon

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Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

The other day, while sorting papers in my office, I unearthed a small book I’d purchased months ago at one of the two independent bookstores within walking distance of my house. (It’s ok. You can be jealous.)

The book is called How To Sit by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

I know what you’re probably thinking. It goes something like this:

“How to sit? I know how to sit. I sit plenty. What I need is a book about how to get off my butt and accomplish all the things I should be doing.”

Of course, Thich Nhat Hanh addresses that within the first few pages.

“Many of us spend a lot of time sitting — too much time. We sit at our jobs, we sit at our computers, we sit in our cars. To sit, in this book, means to sit in a relaxed way, with your mind awake, calm and clear. This is what we call sitting, and it takes some training and practice.”

When was the last time you sat and did nothing?

By nothing, I truly mean NOTHING. No smartphone, television, conversation. No food or beverage. Just you, your surroundings, your breathing, and your thoughts.

If the concept makes your skin crawl, you’re not alone.

My husband and I are currently on a mission to drink less and connect more. A few nights ago, during the time we’d normally be sharing happy hour at the bar in our dining room, we instead found ourselves sitting in matching wing chairs in our living room, staring into space.

I thought I was going to chew my arm off, from sheer frustration and discomfort.

Thoughts were flowing through me in a distressing way:

What is he doing? Why isn’t he saying anything? Maybe I should say something? Why is he just sitting there? When are we going to have dinner? Should I start dinner? What are we going to do AFTER dinner? Should we watch something? That’s so lame. We ALWAYS watch something if we’re not having a cocktail. We need to find something else to do. We need to find something to talk about. I should start a conversation.

Eventually, I cracked.

“WHY ARE WE JUST SITTING HERE?” I asked, in the most dulcet of tones. (Ha.)

“Can’t I just rest for a minute?” he retorted.

No!” screamed every fiber of my being, though fortunately, I didn’t say it out loud. I shed a few quiet tears and shredded my cuticles, which is what I do when I’m feeling unsettled.

I was thoroughly incapable of just sitting.

It was eye-opening.

Since then, I’ve been hyper-aware of my constant need to be in motion, physically or mentally.

Being old enough to clearly remember the days before everyone had smartphones, I can see the correlation. I’m firmly convinced my attention span has diminished over the 15 years I’ve been using one (which is a story for another day). I have a hard time focusing on a single task for very long, and I‘m also unable to just be still with my thoughts.

The second there’s a lull in whatever I’m doing, my face is buried in a screen, flipping from one tab to another, one app to the next, mindlessly searching for anything that will be mildly interesting and catch my attention as a magpie fixates on a flash of silver that’s useless but SHINY!

In the past, if I had a few minutes to spare, I’d pick up a book, or a magazine, or a notepad for journaling. Now, I feel my mind turning to pudding as I eagerly peruse the latest viral cat video.

A book, or a magazine, or my journal — they feel like so much mental effort, these days, compared to picking up that darned phone. Sometimes I don’t even realize I have it in my hand.

And if I just sit, I come face to face with myself. These days, I seem to be addicted to avoiding that.

We toss around the term “mindfulness” as if it’s an ideal state, a goal to be attained. As if, instead of something peaceful, it’s just one more thing for us to do, to accomplish.

We talk about meditation as if we have to get “good” at it, and then we feel inept when we can’t quiet our minds.

I can’t imagine why, after being inundated with information from the screens we connect with almost 24–7, we struggle to slow down.

For many of us, there are two angles at work here:

1. We can’t slow down because we’ve trained ourselves not to. (We’re constantly on the go, constantly looking at something, glorifying action, even if it’s meaningless.)

2. We don’t want to slow down, at least too much, because then we’re left with the voice inside our head. And we don’t always like what our inner monologue is saying to us.

Thich Nhat Hanh says:

“Meditation is simply the practice of stopping and looking deeply”.

That single sentence strips it down to its essence, right? There’s no talk about doing it properly or clearing our minds. There’s no mention of how long we have to do it or where. All we have to do is stop and look deeply. Nothing more, nothing less.

With practice, we can peel back meditation’s many layers, but for those of us who struggle to start until we know we‘ll be able to do it “right”, the simplicity is infinitely comforting.

Learning to sit is going to require a lifetime of trying, I think. But in the past few days, as I’ve been allowing myself to be with my thoughts and observations, I feel a deeper, richer world opening up to me, through the small things I’ve noticed.

· The exquisite plaster molding on my living room ceiling. I’d ceased to see it because instead, I’m fretting about what our neighbors would think of the cat-shredded furniture that doesn’t quite match.

· The first sip of coffee in the morning — a true joy for all the senses that I sometimes forget to fully experience because I’m already checking my email and worrying about the day to come.

· The way my husband’s face lights up when he smiles, which is one of the things that first attracted me to him almost a quarter-century ago. With the stressors of everyday life, it can be all too easy to forget about the little reasons we love each other.

I’ve come to some less-pleasant but equally enlightening realizations as well:

· How much even the slightest conflict upsets me, sometimes to the point of paralysis.

· How agitated I become, constantly, about little things that are not important. Five years from now, I will not remember that someone tailgated me today, so why am I letting experiences like that so intensely impact my mental and physical health?

· How frequently I hold my breath. It’s like I’m trying to retain every toxic thought or feeling I’ve inhaled throughout the day.

With only a few days of practice, I’ve become aware of three critical barriers to peace and contentment and now can begin the work of change.

What are your barriers?

Because the first step in moving toward a calmer existence is noticing the things that prevent us from getting there.

“To be in the here and now — solid and fully alive — is a very positive contribution to our collective situation.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH
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