Home Retreat: Day Two

To truly relax, I must work very hard.

It’s a paradox to say that it requires effort to arrive at effortlessness. Or that everything is perfect as it is, and yet simultaneously needs improvement. Paradoxes like these frustrate the mind, but I guess that’s kind of the point.

At the outset of this summer, I had grand plans to complete a book idea that’s been stewing in my mind for a year. This was born from a very calculative realization that this might be the last chunk of relatively quiet time I’ll have for the new few years. As I slowly came to see, however, pushing myself to write was not really what I needed at this point. Day after day, I just couldn’t muster up the necessary motivation.

This is first period in perhaps 15 years where I didn’t have some obligation or plans. My first instinct was to immediately fill this time with the requirement that I do something more.  I’ve  spent my whole life more or less “on”, so flipping the switch to “off” isn’t easy. Even now, with my leg up on a cushion and no place I can really go, I find it difficult to stop reading, shut off the computer, and simply tune into what’s in front of me.

When the Tibetan Buddhist tradition describes laziness, it includes what we normally associate being unmotivated or unwilling to complete tasks. Interestingly, however, it also describes another type of laziness, which hides itself, and is described as the most pernicious form of laziness:  busyness.

Busyness is laziness because on the outside, being busy looks like you’re accomplishing tasks and being efficient. But this can become a trap if being busy leads us to neglect our inner life. Being busy often leads us to be caught up in the next thing instead of deepening the awareness of what is. In a culture that values achievement and productivity, this type of laziness often goes unrecognized precisely because everyone else around us is busy and it seems like that it what we should be doing as well.

The most difficult element in truly relaxing is taking the first step : giving myself permission. It’s been tough to drop my grand plans and tell myself it’s ok to spend an afternoon in a hammock. Letting myself know that it’s ok to have “unstructured” time.

I often wonder where this resistance to simply being comes from.

To a certain extent, I think it rests on the borderline arrogant assumption that the world depends on me. That it somehow it will be a lesser place without the contribution I think I need to give it.

There’s also the fear that I need something physical to show for this time. That an ‘efficient’ use of my summer should result in something tangible, some proof that I can hold up to others that I’ve been disciplined and utilized my abilities to their fullest potential.

But the deeper level of this is that “doing nothing” is actually hard work! When you’re lying down for a rest, or have a moment between two tasks, an uncomfortable void opens up which insists on being filled. I speak from experience when I say that it’s much easier to check email for the 100th time than be present with the mind’s chaos.

This leads me to the conclusion that doing nothing is unsettling because it forces us to recognize just how unsettled we constantly are. Being busy is a way of avoiding this agitation, of deflecting our attention away just long enough so we don’t actually come in touch with what’s really going on inside. You have to develop the courage to go in there and get in touch with that junk.

It is a paradox that you do have impose structure in order to have unstructured time. You have to carve out some space where you can resist the temptation to fill every last moment with something new and stimulating. It’s helpful to turn off the internet, set an alarm clock- whatever- in order to really give yourself permission to relax.

When you think you supposed to be accomplishing something else, or are completely addicted to the potential of what’s coming up next, it distracts you from the life that’s right in front of you, which may be incredibly precious and nourishing in its own right.  

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Gabriel eating croissant with Dave