The hardest work is to go idle. ~ Yiddish Proverb
Ages ago, when I was a very young college student studying theater arts, a few of our professors encouraged meditation in differing forms, but always with the purpose of drawing our attention inward, to a place centered and still. The creative process is such a mystery that it requires these journeys inward for excavation, image work, listening, and synthesis. But this is also as true of life itself, for everyone, and always.
I have friends who yearn to meditate and engage with it as a practice but who can “never find the time,” and this breaks my heart, because I know how hard they work –almost nonstop—day in and day out, and how rarely they play or even allow hallowed moments of “non-work” to exist and open up their lives to possibilities of stillness and the kind of renewal it alone brings us.
Who has taught us to punish ourselves so earnestly? What is it we fear in encounters with the self? How true is it, finally, to equate our worth with our productivity and “busyness?” Why on earth, while we’re on earth, wouldn’t we deserve regular times of peace and quiet? What has made us so blind to the need for balance?
Why is our first impulse to condemn idleness? Part of it is due to our American heritage, I suppose, and the Protestant work-ethic that people pledge allegiance to without the introspection or reflection a mosquito gives its next bite; some of it results from bad religion, handed down and accepted without question; a good bit is derived from unique family dysfunctions that become the rhythms to which we dance till/unless we learn better music and tempos, but all of it is nonsense and fear-based. And the imbalance generated by “nose to the grindstone” thinking and behavior makes us ill, so very ill in body, mind, and spirit.
A perusal of quotes regarding “idleness” is illuminating. Among others, Kierkegaard, Chekhov, and Virginia Woolf agree that me that idleness is necessary to our health as humans; many others view it with fear and disdain—not surprising in the world we’ve created. (http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/idleness.html) Idleness is not the same as indolence to me, though they are used as synonyms. Neither is “work,” as in engaging with our gifts and passions, synonymous with “busyness,” that cultural frenzy with lists and tasks and always ensuring one is a human doing and never a human being. Engagements with our passions brings us to the center and we lose track of time; busyness causes stress because it so effectively binds us to time and keeps us away from the voice and needs of our spirit.
It is lovely and necessary to create, to work hard, to use our innate giftedness, and to produce something that makes the world, the community, or family, or self, the better for having done it. But this activity and the energy expended require fruitful balance in peace, introspection, reflection, and stillness. The avoidance of this—working “harder” and running faster to evade the still small voice within—is diseased and, at its core, “inhumane.”
For several years, I worked as a chaplain in a heart hospital and came to know the “types” who frequently became patients there: the over-achievers, who whipped out their laptops and cellphones within hours after life-saving surgeries; the people so steeped in denial of their brokenness or grief that their hearts just gave out from being so cruelly “silenced;” those who were non-compliant with prescribed self-care regimens, who routinely “forgot” to take medications or engage in exercise that would restore health; and those who never considered they were spirit as well as body, and that life was transcendent as well as empirical.
I always recall one of my patients, a retired and eminent heart surgeon, who could perceive no connection between his own heart attack and the fact it occurred on the day of his wife’s funeral. He could not accept that grief or loss had any place in his well-being, and was most anxious to leave the hospital and get home to finish necessary tasks he had set out for himself. We cope and grieve differently, and in our own time, but this tenacious avoidance of connecting dots and feeling feelings was something I observed frequently in heart patients.
This is not to blame the patient for the illness: most of us do the best we can till we know better, and our bodies are machines that weaken for many, many reasons, but there is often a connection between illness and a lifetime of beliefs and the behavior patterns they choreograph.
And the thing is, our beliefs and patterns never change unless we name them, review them, assess and evaluate them through reflection and introspection…and change. And this requires what appears to be “idleness.” We need daily recess: playtime and dream dates with our spirits, and connections with the Sacred within and without.
Meditation isn’t tricky. You don’t need to travel anywhere, earn a degree, pay a lot of money, or understand another language to meditate. Books and classes are available: so is a floor—or chair—where you can sit, close your eyes, and breathe for five minutes twice a day, and then, maybe longer. Do it with a friend or do it alone. Be kind to yourself; accept your feelings; heal.
Over the years I’ve continued to meditate and explore what that means for me. As I’ve aged, my stillness practices have only expanded, and all of them can be meditative: Centering prayer, mindfulness practices, walking or biking the trail, dreamwork, sitting with the 4-leggeds, walking a labyrinth, mandala creation and meditations, sitting meditation with and without images, breathwork, photography and gardening, canoeing the river, yoga and yoga prayer, journaling, soup-making, and (yes) housecleaning—all can help me to still and focus, release negative energy and open my spirit to needed healing and joy.
There are days I prefer music and days I need silence; days when I must move, and days when stillness beckons. And there are days when lying on a blanket beneath lovely clouds or a field of stars is mandatory playtime. Don’t look for “rules” regarding how and where, or when you meditate; do look at your need for rules.
For almost 40 years, meditation has saved me, over and over, from tipping into the illness of imbalance or calling me back from it, and I have learned so much about myself and the need for balance.
“Namaste” is the beautiful Hindu word for encounter: used as a word to bless both our greetings and partings, it means, “the Holy/Sacred in me recognizes and is grateful for the Holy/Sacred in you.” One way to begin to slow down is to use this word purposefully, whether silently or out loud, as we move through the day. Seek balance. Let yourself become a human being as often as you are a human doing.
Idleness is the Spirit’s playground.
A little while alone in your room
will prove more valuable than anything else
that could ever be given you.
I have collected dozens of meditation books, but a few I return to frequently and still, are:
Meditation for Life, by Martine Batchelor
Meditation for the Love of It, by Sally Kempton
Meditation, by Richard W. Chilson
God Makes the Rivers to Flow, by Eknath Easwaran
As I’ve mentioned before, Spiritual Literacy, by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, can guide you towards many ways of deepening through self-reflection. The DVD series derived from this book is a wonderful resource for “visual and aural” meditations. Or, visit their website: www.spiritualityandpractice.com
Here’s Fr. Thomas Keating, offering an introduction to Centering Prayer:
And here is a wonderful resource for heart care through meditation, backed by years of scientific testing and research: www.heartmath.com