Impatience is the fuel of our dysfunctional times
When the Western world began colonizing the rest of the world, they invariably encountered something that made them crazy: A disturbing lack of ambition among many people they conquered. Societies that were not driven by aspirations to have things faster. People who felt that waiting a bit was perfectly alright. And the Westerners labeled this laziness and made it a given for ‘uncivilized’ societies. Ironically, it was those ‘lazy’ societies who gave us meditation and contemplation as honorable pursuits. Honorable pursuits for anyone, not just those with religious calling. But they were wrong about the laziness.
Today the fastest growing economies are those ‘lazy’ countries. Ambition is celebrated and wealth is elevated to be the first true worldwide upper class attribute. They have caught the Western disease of impatience, the need to get things faster, whatever it takes. Just as Columbus brought devastating disease to the indiginous Carribean islanders, we have finally succeeded in bringing this disease of overwhelming desire to the world. Desire so powerful that it defies logic as we pollute our own home planet in exchange for temporary material comfort.
The rise of the mindfulness movement and the increase in Western Buddhism are indicators of a growing awareness that a life consumed by impatience is a life consumed by stress. There is an antidote to this impatience challenge and it is free to anyone. The ability to sit, breathe, and quiet your thoughts can almost instantly calm those impatient urges.
Meditation is not mysterious
All meditation consists of is paying attention to your thoughts from another point of view. You don’t have to empty your mind, which is nearly impossible in any case. You simply feel your breath go in and out and watch as your mind tries to distract you from this simple, inevitable act. You will get distracted, but the breath will always be there and you can simply return to it. But at the beginning you will encounter challenges as the ego does its best to keep those thoughts real. That’s why there are certain steps most mediation techniques incorporate into the process. Here are mine, with some observations:
- Sit upright with a straight back. You can sit on a cushion, kneel, or sit in a straight-backed chair with your feet firmly planted on the ground. This posture is important to keeping you focused on the breath.
- Eyes are open. Closed eyes can trigger your mind to get sleepy. Meditation is not rest, it is a state of high alertness.
- Hands rest in lap, forming a circle with thumbs touching in front of your solar plexus.
- Weight rests low rather than up in your chest.
- Breathing is normal, not forced, though there are breathing exercises you can incorporate into your practice
I tell Alexa to set a timer, usually 15–20 minutes. Even with experience it takes at least ten minutes to start to calm and when you get there you’ll want to continue experiencing that feeling.
It can help at the beginning to count your breaths. Set a goal like a 100 count and when you lose track (you will) go back to the last number you remember and continue. Eventually you will not need this but it can help you return to focus when starting out. I find that when I’m getting impatient (where is that damn bus!), simply starting to count breaths actually dissipates that impatience.
Let the battle commence!
When you first start to sit, you will discover that the mind and its thoughts are a powerful adversary, with many weapons. You’ll start to notice itches and aches and pains. You might suddenly have an urgent need to eat, drink, take the trash out, etc. When I started, these distractions made the experience quite uncomfortable, but as you keep circling back to the breath their impact diminishes. When you do have them, simply look at that thought, then go back to the breath. Gradually they will fade into the background.
There is no goal
In our society, not having a goal is anathema. All too often meditation succumbs to this need to measure and collect. The reality is that meditation does not have a goal. A goal like enlightenment or satori (the state of observant consciousness, a Zen term) is just another thought. There is no competition in meditation and no required outcome. You just sit and breathe.
In Buddhism there are three refuges that are often invoked at the beginning and end of a meditation session. They help me focus on my breathing. You breathe in, then out, and then you say, in your mind, “I take refuge in the Buddha”. Next breath you say “I take refuge in the dharma”. Finally, third breath, “I take refuge in the sangha”. Buddha stands for Awakened Being, Dharma for teachings, and Sangha is the community of fellow beings. I repeat this cycle three times at the beginning and end of my session.
Meditation is not religious
In spite of my use of the Refuges, there is nothing inherently religious about meditation. It is a practice to help us become more compassionate beings, less judgemental, and less driven by fleeting desire. It can help you break creative blocks or cope with difficult people.
If you’d like a more detailed guide, try these books:
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Zen Mind, Beginner Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
Reflections On A Mountain Lake by Ani Tenzin Palmo
They are all very readable, light on dogma and preaching, and offer Westerners insights on calming ourselves down, something sorely needed in today’s stressful world.