I keep meaning to add new posts but golly it is a busy life, even when it’s a life that is to all intents and purposes dedicated to Dharma practice. It’s hard to bring major projects, Dharma or otherwise, to fruition because they are constantly interrupted by more immediate concerns, and the to-do list is mainly a historical record of things I meant at one time to get done.
Why is it so hard to set aside meaningful periods of time to focus on things that are really important?
I was in three-year retreat from 2008-2011. When I came out, the world had transformed with the introduction of smartphones, tablets and social media offering 24/7 access, in almost any setting, to email, photos, the internet and other sources of endless news, communication, entertainment, and distraction.
The very day I emerged from retreat, my family gave me an iPhone 4 as a graduation gift. Turning over in my hands what looked like a miniature, shiny version of the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” my first reaction was: “Are you sure this is a phone?” Shortly thereafter, once I had managed to get my ancient laptop reconnected to the internet, as an exercise in navigating the new cyberspace I was encouraged to set up a Facebook account. It was so overwhelming that I didn’t attempt to interact with it for weeks. Now, two and a half years later, I might check it several times a day, whenever I’m waiting for something to happen or need a momentary break from concentration on a task.
Gaps like these appear frequently in our lives, both on the outer level of our daily activities and the inner level of our thoughtstream. How convenient it is to fill them in! How handy the phone, tablet, or favorite website! Bigger gaps appear when the workday is over, and we so habitually fill those in with tv, movies, social events and photos of entrees that we often genuinely feel we don’t have any time or space in our lives.
Some of the most important opportunities for Dharma practice occur in the tiny gaps when we have a fleeting break in the action or a moment of mental space. It’s easy to get used to picking up the phone when that happens–to check for email, see what’s happening, play the next word.
We don’t have to give up our devices, but what if we don’t pick them up right away? What if our first impulse, whether the gap is large or small, is to just notice it, to let our attention rest there and relax? To reconnect with the simplicity and spaciousness of vast, open reality rather than overlay it compulsively with another distraction? Instead of perpetuating samsara, what if we take ourselves out of it for just a moment and start to develop a different habit, one that will be of enormous benefit when we don’t have a device handy, or when the one we have is useless to distract us from illness, grief or the moment of our death?
Once we’ve checked in with the gap, we can still check our phone or meet friends for coffee. The benefit of resting first in the natural spaces that appear throughout the day is in the breaking, even momentarily, of the constant stream of physical, verbal, and mental busyness that otherwise swallows our precious human life. By doing this repeatedly, we can gradually develop a new habit of finding a comfort zone in the gap rather than only in escaping from it, and with this habit, we are always prepared for the next thing that happens. Or doesn’t.
Along similar lines:
The Documented Life, an op-ed by Sherry Turkle in today’s the New York Time: “These days, when people are alone, or feel a moment of boredom, they tend to reach for a device. In a movie theater, at a stop sign, at the checkout line at a supermarket and, yes, at a memorial service, reaching for a device becomes so natural that we start to forget that there is a reason, a good reason, to sit still with our thoughts…”
The first post in Eric Swanson’s new blog: Take Meditation Off Your To-Do List And Make It A Cookie Break: “When I approach meditation this way, I feel like I’m giving myself a little treat—because I am.”