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Over the past two years, I’ve found myself with fewer external distractions and tasks that require my attention.
However, even with this slowing down of life due to circumstances largely beyond my control, I’ve discovered I continue finding distractions to keep me busy.
Why is it that most of us are constantly running from ourselves by finding something to do? It doesn’t matter how productive and seemingly positive it might be. While it can be healthy or constructive to go for a hike outdoors or do some cleaning around the house, these actions can distract us endlessly.
If someone is constantly on the go from one thing to another, they’re likely—as many of us are, myself included—addicted to action. Of course, the opposite can also be an issue if we spend too much time doing nothing, but that’s not the case for most of us today.
“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” ~ Blaise Pascal
It’s worth mentioning here that our lasting misery doesn’t stem from the times when we are forced to sit quietly alone for a short period. It is the fact that we avoid (or outright refuse) to do this that is the problem, not that we sometimes will be required to do so.
How we avoid sitting and doing nothing is by having something to constantly do, and by doing so, we’re avoiding the most important thing: the present moment. Also, in so doing, we are making a fundamental mistake: living from our minds.
There is comfort in the predictability of creating our own story in our heads, but that’s not where life happens. Our minds craft a pale reflection composed of single-dimensional words, rather than the multiple dimensions of reality. It is merely a flat echo of what we experience.
An analogy to illustrate this would be: imagine reading a guidebook about an exotic location versus actually traveling there and seeing the sights firsthand. Our mind may be able to form an idea about what the place might be like, but it’s a fantasy.
I am personally guilty of over researching any new endeavor (usually by reading all about it), and often I have to remind myself to go for the experience instead of creating more preconceived notions about it. One of my favorite ways to do this is to travel without a fixed plan and let myself be guided based on what comes up next during my trip.
However, it takes a willingness to experience life as it unfolds, as opposed to trying to control what happens in our minds. Sitting quietly in a room can be enjoyable, but it’s the stories that we begin to tell ourselves while not doing something that starts to cause misery.
As long as there is perpetually something else to do—whether it’s mind-created or physical-based—we can easily ignore the existential anguish that keeps us running from ourselves.
So why does this continual running from the present moment into our minds make us miserable? It’s not because we are being active in doing something, seemingly contrary to what I’ve been saying so far. We can be accomplishing things in the world and not be running from the present moment.
There is a Taoist term that helps illustrate this called “wu-wei,” which roughly translated means “non-action.” What it attempts to show us is that it’s not action, and it’s also not no action; it is between the two extremes.
What is typically referred to as action is imposed by us and not in sync with life. One can act while not forcing the action, and live in harmony. This has also been called being in the flow, and it’s when action comes without overthinking it.
Many people find their minds quiet and they become present from certain activities. Anything that requires our full presence will do this. Examples include engaging in a high-intensity sport, creating some form of creative art, or even more seemingly mundane tasks like doing the dishes. Inner attention is the difference, not the external circumstances.
When we aren’t present, however, and are just mentally checking another item off our to-do list, that’s when we suffer. Perhaps this isn’t true while we are actively distracting ourselves at the time, but we can be sure it will catch up to us once we sit quietly alone!
This momentum builds as we keep avoiding the present moment, and a destructive cycle continues as we keep doing more to avoid what all this action is distracting us from. In order to avoid the uncomfortableness we feel, we spiral downward finding further distractions.
Like any addiction, it takes a bigger “hit” each time to get us feeling the way it used to, and that’s how this process creates a negative cycle pushing us further away from the one thing we are simultaneously trying to avoid and that which will relieve us: sitting quietly here and now.
This is how the simple act of being alone doing nothing isn’t causing the lasting misery in our lives, but instead, it’s the attempt to escape from ourselves through various mind-created distractions.
Breaking the cycle and becoming comfortable with sitting quietly alone will liberate us from the tyranny of being run by our minds, and instead shifts our awareness so that the mind becomes a useful tool instead of an ego-fueled master.
It is possible to make friends with the mind and the present moment, but it’s necessary to be willing to sit with ourselves and not run from the uncomfortableness.
When our mind isn’t running the show, it’s actually the easiest thing in the world to sit quietly in a room alone, and the peace found therein will surpass intellectual understanding.