In a time of great need, we must all be needed to do something. It’s a very logical thought, surely at a time like this we must be something we are all required to do. As we sit in lockdown wondering what to do with ourselves often our mind starts posing this question to us – I must need to do something. The current situation highlights the reality of our interconnectedness in a way that was harder to see before, the only way we will get through this crisis is by working together, and something is indeed required of us all.
If you are not a key worker, then the requirement on you is to do nothing, or as close to nothing as you can get by on. In the UK that means only going to the shops when it is essential, and as infrequently as possible; only going out once a day for up to an hour for exercise; and making no other journeys unless it is to help vulnerable people. Other countries have more strenuous restrictions than this but compared to our normal busy lives what we have available to us can feel like almost nothing.
Ordinarily we spend months every year during our boring work days dreaming about the two or three weeks we will have off in the summer when we can go on holiday. What makes the dream so delicious is the idea that we will be able to ‘do nothing’. But now here we are officially being told to do nothing, and it is anything but delicious.
I read a story in a paper this morning about a couple who have become trapped in a perpetual honeymoon on a tropical island. Travel restrictions were imposed while they were celebrating their honeymoon and now they are stuck there for who knows how long. The writer of the piece commented that so many of us dream of being stuck on a tropical island but when the reality struck for this couple it wasn’t a dream come true but a nightmare, now perhaps we can appreciate that it would be the same for us too.
The nothingness is uncomfortable and unsettling, so for many the answer is to find something to do. Can’t go to the pub? Have a zoom pub quiz. Can’t see your friends? Facetime. Got no routine? How about Joe Wicks in the morning, and Jamie Oliver in the afternoon then? I’ve got all this time on my hands I can learn a language, bake a cake, make sourdough bread, lay a patio, change the oil filter, paint the fence, etc.
But the somethings are only ever a temporary relief from the nothings, and even when we do find something to do often it leaves us feeling no better. Why can’t we just do nothing? Why can’t we be like cats lying in the sun all day? Why is it so hard to stay still?
A series of experiments was conducted (no pun intended) a few years ago where the participants were left alone in a room on their own with nothing to do for about 15 minutes. In one version of this experiment the participants were given the option of one thing to do – deliver a small electric shock to themselves. In that scenario more than half of the participants decided to electrocute themselves, which gave rise to the newspaper headlines that scientists had found that most people would rather give themselves an electric shock than sit with their own thoughts.
Whether the experiment really proved that or not isn’t important, but it is a rather extreme way of illustrating a fundamental habit that most of us have. We often find it easier to do something, anything – even electrocute ourselves – than do nothing.
Many people are literally risking their lives to keep our society going; sitting on our sofas can feel cowardly in comparison. There’s a war going on out there, but we are just to sit here and do nothing. Much as we might feel we should be rushing to join the battle, it is useful to recognise when our motivation is borne more out of restlessness than altruistic intention. In Buddhist psychology a charitable act motivated by poor intention is unskilful, so if you genuinely want to do something for the good of others you must always start by examining your own intentions first.
Restlessness is an often talked about experience in Buddhist practice because it is one of the Five Hindrances. The Five Hindrances of sensual desire, ill will, restlessness and remorse, sloth and torpor, and sceptical doubt are negative mental states that ‘hinder’ our progress in the practice. First of all we use the Five Hindrances to understand why we are struggling in meditation, but once we have witnessed their presence during meditation then we become more aware of their activity during times when we are not meditating.
When we meditate restlessness can come from boredom; meditation is boring, so it’s no surprise that we become restless. But when you look really closely you notice that it isn’t the boredom that is the problem, it’s the fact that it makes you feel uncomfortable. But also, feeling uncomfortable can manifest as restlessness. If you are sitting in a bad posture you can literally feel so uncomfortable that you start fidgetting to try to make it stop.
If you mindfully examine all your feelings of restlessness in meditation you will eventually come up with a list of reasons why it happens – you’re too hot, you’re too cold, you’re in pain, you’re bored, you’re annoyed, you’re tired, you’re wired. When you look even closer into all of these situations you find that behind all of them is a feeling of discomfort that you want to get away from.
Practicing with the Five Hindrances has the potential to be a powerful teaching because when we look very deeply into what is at the heart of all of these negative states is the tendency to want things to be different from the way they are, and more importantly the inability to tolerate the discomfort that comes from things not being the way you want them to be.
Our natural tendency is to try to stop or get away from discomfort, so learning how to tolerate it goes against our habitual natures. But there is a quote attributed to the Tibetan teacher Tenzin Palmo that illustrates the difference between just dealing with the problem in a basic way, by trying to get away from discomfort, and tackling the problem in a more fundamental way, dealing with the aversion to discomfort:
“Most people feel cozy enough in samsara. They do not really have the genuine aspiration to go beyond samsara; they just want samsara to be a little bit better. It is quite interesting that “samsara” became the name of a perfume. And it is like that. It seduces us into thinking that it is okay: samsara is not so bad; it smells nice! The underlying motivation to go beyond samsara is very rare, even for people who go to Dharma centers. There are many people who learn to meditate and so forth, but with the underlying motive that they hope to make themselves feel better. And if it ends up making them feel worse, instead of realizing that this may be a good sign, they think there is something wrong with Dharma. We are always looking to make ourselves comfortable in the prison house. We might think that if we get the cell wall painted a pretty shade of pale green, and put in a few pictures, it won’t be a prison any more.”
Trying to stop the discomfort is like painting the walls of our prison cell because more discomfort will come along even if we have outrun this one; we are still in the prison. Recognising and learning to tolerate our discomfort is like escaping from the prison, when we can tolerate our discomfort then we are free from the problem.
So trying to deal with our restlessness and boredom by finding something to do is just painting the walls of your cell. Dig deeper and find out what the real problem is. Sitting with your mind and asking difficult questions of yourself can require a great deal of bravery; action of any kind – even electrocuting yourself – can often be much easier than staying still.
But these hard yards are vital; if we never sit with our discomfort long enough, if we continuously find ways to escape from it, then we will never learn how to deal with it and will always run away from it.
The famous self help book “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” by Susan Jeffers isn’t a Buddhist book, but it’s central premise does ring true with Buddhist practice – discomfort is something we will always experience so stop choosing what to do or not do because it makes you feel uncomfortable; learn to be able to ‘do it anyway’ even when it is uncomfortable. We do the same thing in our practice, we observe that discomfort is a frequent part of human experience, and we observe that it does not need to be an impediment to having a calm, focussed mind.
If you can sit still with the discomfort, you can get through the layers and really understand what you are feeling. Sometimes though what we find when we dig deeper can generate intense feelings of fear, and if that happens we need to make sure we have some tools at our disposal to help us to work with them. We never just jump off the edge without a safety rope, our practice must always be wise. Here are some of the ways I deal with these kinds of feelings when they come up.
If you look closely at intense feelings of fear you might notice that they come from thoughts. We can feel so overpowered by the impact of thoughts that we often forget that they are just thoughts. We get so engrossed by the content of our thoughts and the story we are telling that we forget that thoughts are just bursts of mental energy. Thoughts are to the brain what breathing is to the lungs. These bursts of mental energy just shoot harmlessly through our minds if we leave them alone; it is when we grab hold of them and spin them into a story that they cause us problems.
In those situations it is useful to take our attention away from the thought itself and onto our feelings. Stop. Pause. Breathe. Put your focus on your physical experience. Go back to the breath if you can. Once you have settled a little then ask yourself what do I feel right now in my body? Where do I feel it? When you find it put your attention there. Don’t think about the feeling, just watch it.
Then investigate – what do I feel? It might be tightness in your stomach, or nervousness in your body, or heaviness, or agitation, whatever it is just fix your attention on it. Don’t name it as emotions, only name the physical sensations.
Little by little the feeling will start to pass; you didn’t need to do anything, you just had to wait. And this is how we learn to sit with discomfort, we realise that if we can hold our attention in the right place then the feeling will naturally just pass on its own. Then that allows us to change our perspective when discomfort arises – if we know it is going to pass anyway then we understand that we don’t always have to do something in response to it.
I’m not suggesting that the right thing to do is always nothing, if your jumper was on fire then practicing with the discomfort of heat would be an extremely unwise thing to do. But if you have been tasked with the role of doing nothing then perhaps the sensible thing to do is to learn how to do it well. Don’t believe your restless mind, ask what’s really going on. You might feel like you’re not doing much right now, but the time for us to do something will come. The work that you do now to sit with the discomfort of doing nothing is the best way to be ready for that time when you need to do something.