Earlier this month I spent a week in a silent meditation retreat. I try to do this a couple of times each year. No work, no errands, no cooking, no decisions, and no conversations; just practice, lots of practice. People often comment that the idea of not talking for a week seems impossible, even insane. For me, it’s a luxury and profoundly sane. My mind is so busy talking to me that not talking to others is a relief. Of course there’s always the internal chatter, but as the days go by, even it quiets down and has less to say. And that is truly luxurious.
We’re all like this. We’re so busy in our daily lives that we hardly notice the constant stimulus and input until we stop. Really stop. That’s when we can hear just how much is going on, how loud it is, and just how much energy it requires to manage it all. Meditation is the beautiful hard work of doing nothing so we can see, feel and hear what’s actually here.
Over the years, I’ve noticed retreats have a certain flavor or theme that emerges on its own. Some are calm and quiet, some energizing and inspiring, some are annoying and challenging, and some are just plain boring; all facets of the mind itself. Typically, each retreat has moments of all of these. This retreat was especially stormy. My mind was all over the place, replaying story after difficult story, truly a broken record. It felt like a sticky, thorny nest of Velcro where the thoughts and stories were tangled into a knotted mess.
In Buddhist practice, the regular and normal thought storms that blow in and blow out are known as The Eight Worldly Winds or The Eight Vicissitudes of Life. I love the word vicissitudes. It perfectly describes these storms. They include
- Praise & Blame
- Gain & Loss
- Pleasure & Pain
- Conceit & Shame
The repetitive stories hijacking my mind included all of these. It was a whirlwind of sadness and anger, fear and excitement, pride and embarrassment, happiness and contentment, on and on and on. Just like life.
And then I remembered a comment a meditation teacher once said in passing. “You know, nothing is worth thinking about.” When I heard this, I wondered how nothing could be worth thinking about. But then I got it. Nothing, as a pronoun, is worth thinking about. Perhaps this was my ticket out of the thorny nest. So I spent a fair amount of time contemplating nothing and nothingness, and slowly my mind calmed down and began to unwind.
Here’s a lovely piece I recently read from the Zen teacher, Karen Maezen Miller in her book Paradise in Plain Sight.
“These days I want nothing more than to enter an empty room with a group of strangers and sit still and quiet in samadhi, nondistracted awareness, for the better part of a day. I am always astonished by the presence of people who would dare to do such a thing – burn perfectly good daylight to get nothing done.
To take responsibility for peace in your world is genuinely heroic. Practicing meditation can be hard on your stiff body and restless mind, but it does not hurt anyone. No one is harmed by your practice; indeed, everyone is helped. When you are still, no eyebrows are arched, no fists are clenched, no fingers are tapped, no sideways glances are given. When you are quiet, nothing mean, cruel, or critical is said. We have the power to transform everything when we have the courage to do nothing.”
Let this sink in. “To take responsibility for peace in your world is genuinely heroic” and “We have the power to transform everything when we have the courage to do nothing.” Try it sometime, perhaps especially now with the busyness of the holidays, the ending of one year and moving into the new one.
Sit down, relax as best you can, feel your breath coming and going, and imagine nothing. Hang out with nothing. Feel nothing. Not numb-out, but feel the texture of nothing. And for the moment, be nothing. This is courageously making peace and transforming everything.