No Longer Lazy Busy

Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is relax.
~ Mark Black

Gambar oleh Pasja1000 dari Pixabay

What comes to the mind when we hear the word – relaxing? Perhaps a very nice and comfortable laid-back setting where you are enjoying yourself, enjoying massage, on holiday, or staying late in bed doing nothing.

Admittedly, many of us have one or few or many of those moments where we were thinking about tasks we are procrastinating by staying late in bed doing nothing (while doing many things in our head, without getting anything done); or reading our emails during holiday instead of fully enjoying it.

Indeed, the word relaxing has that lazy, non-productive connotation to it that we tend to want it, and simultaneously, feel guilty about doing it. Many of us perhaps also have had at least one episode of being off work sick, intending to get some rest at home, but not unwell enough to not keep on thinking about things we should be doing at work (and try to do a little bit of the works here and there too!), instead of fully resting. I for one, had more than one of those.

While Oxford dictionary defines relaxing as “a way of resting and enjoying yourself; time spent resting and enjoying yourself”, it also defines the word as “the state of feeling calm and not anxious or worried”.

For the purpose of this discussion, we will refer to the second definition, which highlights the absence of anxiety and worry. So, it does not have anything to do with the activities. It is actually about the state of mind.

By this definition, we should be able to say that we are actually relaxing almost all the time, should we not? Yes, we can be worry and anxious about many things, but definitely not most of the time, right? Most of the ordinary moments of the day are actually relaxing – no anxiety, no worry.

Is that really so?

Let us have a look at what we notice in mindfulness practices. Herein, we discover that body and breaths tangibly display the state of the mind. A relaxed body that represents a fully relaxed mind is a body that is free from any unnecessary tensions, that is, tensions in all muscles, joints, connective tissues, in any part of the body.

It is important to mention that tensions are not inherently bad. They are necessary for the limbs and organs to perform their functions. Specific to the skeletal muscles, contractions are required for us to move around and lift things. Contractions may also be necessary for us to protect and defend ourselves from danger.

What usually happen is that we continue to contract the muscles when no actions are required and no self-defence is necessary. One example of this occasion is when we are reading texts and emails. When we observe ourselves close and often enough, we will find that there are usually, to a certain extent, tensions in the eyebrow centre, eyeballs, jaws, and shoulders while doing the simple act of reading. Some of us may even be holding our breaths.  All these physical tensions affect the mind, declining the relaxing state in which we were all to be.

Here is where regular mindfulness practice comes handy. When we train our mind to be mindful of our body, moment to moment, we are able to be aware of the tensions as soon as it is developing, not after it is being ingrained and affects our whole state of being, which in turn affects our actions and speech. The awareness, in and of itself, is liberating. The moment we are aware that we are not relaxing, we start to be more relax. We may not be able to relax completely yet, but being a tiny bit more relax is a good place to start.

At the end of the day, mindfulness practices would enable us to relax regardless of activities. We can become fully occupied and yet so relaxed that the mind is clear and luminous. We no longer busy looking for ways and places to relax, trying to escape from the worry and anxiety, only to bring the worries and anxieties with us.

No longer are we lazy busy, because the source of relaxation is always here and now, within.

Within you, there is stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.
~ Hermann Hesse

Monkey Mind and I

The sky is clear and unaffected by what is happening.
The clouds come and go,
the winds come and go,
so does the rain and sunlight,
but the sky remains clear.”
~ Joseph Goldstein

Try to sit still, do nothing and not think about anything at all for a few minutes or so. An average person will soon find the mind start wandering. Sometimes, the mind seems to have specific issues to grasp. Some other times it just hops on and off, from one thought to another. Just like monkeys, the mind incessantly jumps from one branch of thought to another. So, we call this mind monkey mind.

Now suppose we were to spend these same few minutes in a practice called meditation. It is generally being taught that meditation equals to focusing our mind only on our breaths and nothing else, which is supposed to be very calming. Unfortunately, this idea about meditation does not correspond to our reality of monkey mind, and this can easily frustrate anyone who try to learn to practice meditation.

What is not being as often discussed is that the meditation practice is a practice where we keep on returning the mind to our object of awareness, be it breaths or anything else. The calming focused mind is the meditative state resulting from the practice, and not the practice itself. It takes practice to arrive into the calming focused mind.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

For many of us, monkey mind drives us mad for two main reasons.

First, it is because we would like the mind not to be “monkey-ish”, while in reality it IS a monkey mind – the mind that just would not obey our demand to be calm and still. So, there is internal conflict between what we want and what it is.

Most of us do not realize that how lively that monkey mind is depends on how busy and agitated we have been during the day as well as how little real rest we allow ourselves. Our agitation and activities energize the monkey. If we wish for the monkey not to jump around so much, then we should remember not to jump around so much either. And yes, that includes not to jump around from one social media posting to another.

What do we then do with monkey mind? First and most important, Stop telling the monkey to sit still, because being still is simply what monkey mind does NOT do. Instead, we can practice being a passive observer. We observe whatever comes into our mind, be it good or bad, the way we observe monkey jumping from one branch to another. Being an observer, we do not jump around with the monkey, nor do we get upset about which branch the monkey chooses to land on. We passively observe until the monkey gets tired, or it runs out of branches to hop on, and it will eventually stay still. As will our mind.

I suppose this is why there is an old Zen proverb that says something like “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour”.

Sometimes the monkey is over-excited that it overwhelms us. In times like these, give the monkey something to do for a while, like counting the breaths, or regulating the breaths in certain rhythm. Practices with breaths are usually calming, that it is easier for us to go back to being an observer again afterwards.

Second, if we happen to have certain issues that are gnawing deep within, the monkey, for whatever reasons, tends to linger around these issues despite our dissent. In times like these, meditation is more of an agitating practice than calming one.

During such episodes, apart from being a passive observer, it also helps to be a good friend to the monkey mind. Most of the judging self-critical thoughts we have towards our own thoughts and emotions, the aversions we have towards our state of mind, would not be anything that we would do or say to a good friend. A good friend is kind, and being kind means being understanding, accepting and encouraging – full of compassion.

So, we do no different towards the monkey mind. Let it jump around, and talks incessantly and tells us stories we do not want to hear, fears we try to hide away, grieves we refuse to let go. We let the monkey mind do so with an open heart that is understanding and full of compassion, despite of temptations from time to time to jump after the monkey mind, or to grab its tail and try to make the monkey stay quiet. Instead, we stay put and be at peace with it. And that, for what it is worth, is the practice of meditation.

As we give our friend, the monkey mind, a space, to be still or to jump around, we learn so much about it, as much as we learn about our being. In this understanding, we can be more at peace with ourselves, anytime anywhere.

“How shall I help the world?”
“By understanding it,” said the Master.
“And how shall I understand it?”
“By turning away from it.”
“How then shall I serve humanity?”
“By understanding yourself.”
~ Anthony de Mello

What Mindfulness Is Not

To be aware of this whole process of existence, to observe it,
to dispassionately enter into it, and to be free of it, is meditation.
~ Jiddu Krishnamurti, Book of Life

As mindfulness practice has become some sort of a new life style nowadays, we see the practice being attached to various activities and events. When the word is being very loosely applied to almost anything, it can be rather confusing. Indeed, Mindfulness is a curious something that is rather delicate to describe, especially to those who try to learn about it on a cognitive level.

portrait-317041 - Image by 192635 at Pixabay
Image by User 192635 at Pixabay

Nevertheless, there are a few things that Mindfulness is definitely NOT. Below are a few of them.

Mindfulness is Not about being happy-stress-free All the time.

While Mindfulness practices have been found to be significantly beneficial in alleviating stress, it is not about stress reduction. The practice of Mindfulness trains us to accept things as they are, not by changing our thoughts or feelings about a certain thing or occasion, but by not identifying ourselves with any unwelcome thoughts or emotions. Freedom from identification helps us to see the problem for what it is, that we can understand it properly and act from a place of wisdom.

This is the essence of the practice. Stress reduction is a very welcome bonus.

Mindfulness is Not a practice to free the mind from thoughts.
It is not uncommon to perceive mindfulness as a practice where one attempts to empty one’s mind from any thoughts, resulting in blank zombie like state.

Thought formations, mainly our responses to external objects or internal memory, are present almost all the time in the mind. With mindfulness practices, we learn to not react unnecessarily to each and every stimuli. This results in less thought formation, less fluctuations in the mind, a state which is experienced as calmness.

Such state of mind is a result of regular practice. It does not happen overnight, nor does it happen with a simple intention of emptying the mind.

Mindfulness is Not about sitting crossed legged for hours.
Despite sitting meditation being the core practice of Mindfulness, the practice is not only about it. Sitting meditation, when performed regularly and “properly”, would rest the mind. Once the mind is rested, it is still a mindfulness practice as important as sitting meditation to be mindful of our body, breaths, thoughts and feelings as we go around fulfilling our daily activities.

In the midst of challenges and problems, it is also just as important to mindfully choose our actions and actually doing them. Being calm allows us to be more open to different solutions, but it is not the solution in and of itself.

Mindfulness can Not be reduced to being aware or conscious.
We are generally conscious all the time, with objects in mind, unless we are no longer alive, or perhaps, in a coma. In this case, very few people, if not none, can say they are mindful in all their conscious moments. Therefore, Mindfulness is not about being conscious.

Meanwhile, being aware is whenever we are aware of a certain thing, be it sound, sight, smell, taste or sense. Not all these awareness are Mindful awareness. For example, we can be aware that we are planning to harm ourselves or others and proceed on doing it, all the while being aware of doing it. This is not Mindfulness either.

With Mindfulness practice, we learn to be aware of the intention, of the desires or fear or aversion that propel the intention, and not being driven by them.

“Mindfulness requires a thoroughgoing equanimity. This does not mean you don’t care or are indifferent to what is happening, only that the mind is evenly balanced and fully aware of things exactly as they are, without the desire to change them by favouring one thing or opposing another.” ~ Andrew Olendzki PhD, What Mindfulness Is (Not)

Having said all the above, this article does not aim to strictly define Mindfulness. Words, more often than not, have many limitations. Have a go, and define Mindfulness as per your unique first hand experience.

All It Takes

“How am I to transform? I see the truth – at least, I see something in it – that a change, a transformation, must begin at a level that the mind, as the conscious or the unconscious, cannot reach, because my consciousness as a whole is conditioned.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

dandelion by Monsterkoi
Picture by Tom (monsterkoi) at Pixabay

Inspired by a few Earth Day initiatives, I once started this project of reducing tissue consumption, simply because I have done plastic on daily basis for a few years now. Reminded of a TED Talk by Joe Smith (“How to use one paper towel”), which I have been practising ever since I watched the talk, it seems to be interesting to extend the practice to other types of tissue and paper.

So the mind began with trying to exactly measure the current tissue consumption, observing the process to find any non-value added use of tissue, and then trying to measure the right quantity that is necessary for each activity. Complicated, that is just how the thinking mind is, as it always runs with assumptions and frameworks. In this case, the mind assumed that there must be a certain perfect formula just like the one for paper towel and it operated under continuous improvement based framework.

It did not get me anywhere.

Until I noticed that as I observed myself taking any tissue or paper towel, the amount that I threw away after use was noticeably less than when I took the paper in a rush or absent mindedly. After a while, I decided to stop trying to figure the perfect practice. This self observation, which is actually one of mindfulness qualities, is sufficient in reducing waste.

“We’re always fixing things, aren’t we? It never strikes us that things don’t need to be fixed. They really don’t. This is a great illumination. They need to be understood. If you understood them, they’d change.” ~ Anthony de Mello

Then I went for one week mindfulness retreat in this really cool facility that allows for no unorganic waste to be left behind in the compound. If we produce ANY unorganic waste, we have to bring them home. And yes, this includes any plastic wraps, bottle, tissue and paper towels.

So I went there with a few big waste plastic bag ready, thinking that no way I could abruptly adopt a lifestyle with so little one-time use things the way it used to be decades ago. Also, retreat is for the so-called “real” practice, I did not wish to trouble myself with any inconveniences that would deter my practice. In other words, I was ready to litter.

Astoundingly, I went home with barely a quarter of small waste plastic bag filled in, and it was not inconvenient, nor did it feel primitive at all. In fact, the lifestyle felt no less natural than breathing when we practice mindfulness in each step, each movement, each breath, in every single task, no matter how simple or unimportant or mundane the task may seem to be. It appears to be easily translated into very little waste.

Since this was so easy, I was easily convinced that I could be just a good friend to the earth as I had been from then on, only to find that being at home, my trash bin quickly fills and I empty my box of tissue just as quickly. How so?

One main variable was the availability of things that could easily turn into waste. This is perhaps one of the few occasions where we find scarcity highly beneficial. The Retreat centre simply did not use nor provide anything that is of single use or non-recyclable. While I have quite a few in my bag, the fact that it was not readily available simplifies our struggle to use less, and because we were mindful, it was effortless not to complain as we easily turned to what is available.

Then, there was hardly any trash bins in the compound that we do not get to see anyone putting anything into trash bins and I recognize the use of clothes instead of tissues every now and then. The only two trash bins within sight are almost empty throughout. Given that human brain is designed to mirror our environment, we tend to behave the way others do. As individuals, each of us endlessly copies and reinforces our behaviours to one another.

In this case, it is easy to reduce our consumption when everyone else does. Removed from such environment, we have to perpetually battle our nature to mimic those around us.

Above all that, most essential is the fact that we were all there to practice mindfulness, being aware of our actions and thoughts from moment to moment. If being Mindful on some trivial moments is already beneficial in reducing tissue consumption without any other active effort, the same applies on a bigger scale during moment to moment mindfulness.

Now imagine applying this to more people working together in an organisation set-up, that is, mindful people working together in a mindful way, with a few mindful ‘conditioning’. CSR would no longer be in constant conflict with shareholders interests. Green marketing would not be a me-too movement under social pressure, but an automatic gesture as a result of Mindful thinking behind every action. We all would have less recycling to do because each of us optimize our consumption and thus the most important link of the reduce-reuse-recycle happens most of the time. The remaining resources, or money, can be allocated for many other things. If people end up using less of our products, they will have more money for the extra frills and services, providing we know what to offer and why we offer them. Everyone will end up happier.

How do we make that happen? Nothing sophisticated, one Mindful breath at a time, one Mindful action at a time, and one Mindful conversation at a time.

That is all it takes, no more, no less.

“I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big successes. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of human pride.”

~ William James

Meditation, A Journey Home

“Depression is a common illness worldwide, with an estimated 350 million people affected.” ~ World Health Organization Fact Sheet, April 2016

FranckinJapan-pixabay-japanese-2046171_1920
Picture by francinjapan at Pixabay

Over the years, studies have been conducted over benefits of meditation and how it works. Most often cited benefits are related to the areas of stress management, self control and concentration. There is an article in Forbes by Alice Walton (2015), which neatly summarized various distinct researches on how meditation affects our brain. There listed a few interesting conclusions from the studies. Meditation was said to help preserve the aging brain, has effects rival antidepressants for depression, decrease volume of brain cells known to be responsible for fear, anxiety and stress, can help with addiction, and it helps kids in school.

These well meaning publications benefit many by raising their awareness and interests in the practice. But as wisely concluded in the article, meditation is not panacea.

This is an important statement for two main reasons.

One of the reasons being, meditation is a long journey. It is not something that we practice overnight and then it washes all our stresses away. In the world where people expect everything to be straight forward and instant, this can be disappointing. Then, all the appealing benefits are not the utmost outcome of meditation. While it is a simple practice, how it works is never that straight forward.

It is perhaps acceptable to assume that most people relate the word meditate to an image of someone sitting crossed legged with eyes closed in deep concentration. This image is often used to represent peace and calm. So much so that recently I was informed of a newly open premium resort and spa with cozy meditation room as part of the facility. There was a person sitting crossed legged depicted in their communication materials. In other words, peace and calm equals meditation equals sitting cross legged.

Meanwhile, the same practice has also been introduced into corporations as an aid to perform your duties more efficiently with less stress, perhaps your key to success. Busy and ambitious corporate world, peace and relaxing calm of resort and spa, seemingly rather on one end to another of a spectrum, both claim to practice and benefit from meditation. Can it be so? Yes, perhaps. Maybe not.

The thing is, meditation has become a word very loosely applied everywhere. The meditation practice a hermit does in the Himalayan mountains can be very much different from the short session offered in a cozy set up with soft comfortable cushion, soothing smell of incense and calming music in the background. The well intended spirit of bringing the practice into daily life, or the so-called “off the cushion” practice, has turned almost literally everything into meditation. While it truly is, and we shall talk a bit more on this some other time, the idea can be a little confusing.

So what IS meditation? One of the most amusing questions that not only a few people ask when I told them I just returned from one week meditation retreat (or that I practice Yoga) is – “SO, you can levitate?” What and how exactly I was expected to respond is still a mystery to me. Maybe I should seriously confirm so and see what happens.

“I have been a seeker and I still am, but I stopped asking the books and the stars. I started listening to the teaching of my Soul.” ~ Rumi

This is how I would define meditation, regardless of the actual actions that are referred to as meditation; the art of listening to ourselves, to the incessant chatter in our heads, drowning waves of emotions and somewhere some time, the peaceful silence within. Being able to listen to ourselves is a useful skill, from which we would understand what is happening within this existence we casually refer to as ourselves.

“Meditation is putting aside altogether everything that man has conceived of himself and the world.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

In listening to myself, I discovered that everything I see, I see it through frames. These frames were planted in our minds through our ability to perceive and remember. All our previous experiences, habits and norms imposed on us, all these forms solid frames. Trouble is, more often than not, the lenses were either distorted or unclean so we do not see things the way they are. And that includes the way we see others and ourselves. How often do we take ourselves as the wrecked person inside our heads, which we relentlessly try to get rid of? Are we really all that noise in our heads? Or are we really the exterior that we see, nurture and entertain all the time? What about the idea that we are neither?

“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” ~ Bell Hooks

Habits are usually acted upon without us being aware that we are doing it. It becomes natural and it has become natural for us to distract ourselves all the time. Our gadgets and other electronic devices certainly play a big part in this habit. What happen when we disconnect ourselves from everything and everyone to simply be with ourselves? We start listening to the voices within and learn to be in peace with it. This is the first step in alleviating ourselves from the subtle constant unease of wanting to be anywhere but here, to be with anyone else but oneself. We learn to be content and cease looking outwards to escape from our very selves, from whatever is at any given moment.

There is a saying that I really like:

“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” ~ old Zen saying

Seriously, 20 minutes? Surely, in the beginning it can be very challenging to this mind to sit still with something as boring as breaths. A widely used term to describe this restless nature of mind is ‘monkey mind’, indicating how the mind incessantly jumps from one thing to another, all the time. An old friend of mine prefers to see it as puppies instead of monkey. With no particular reasons, I am with him. It is easier to see the mind as restless puppies (than monkey), which just need a bit of watching until they get tired and then decide to rest.

That is exactly why the Zen saying proposed an hour if we are too busy. The busier we are, the more excited the mind become, the more restless the puppies are. It would take longer for the mind to finally give it a rest and begin to settle into the moment. As the mind settles, perhaps, we would stumble into something grander than the mundane, something unknown to this busy limited mind. Otherwise, it is a beautiful practice nonetheless.

A pleasant walk, a journey home….

The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away
We sit together, the mountain and I,
Until only the mountain remains.

~ Li Po