Henry David Thoreau sometimes spent whole mornings doing nothing but sitting in his doorway gazing at the trees while the birds sang and flitted through his house. He called this “the bloom of the present moment” and considered it more important than any work he could have spent that time doing.
I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.
This choice passage from “Walden” gently rebukes the American mindset, which values doing over being. Spend a whole morning just sitting there? That’s great if you’re up at the cabin for the weekend, but who has time for that in normal life? If I’m going to just sit there, I can at least spend it scanning the Web or watching “The Office.”
But the Walden passage is one of many ways Jon Kabat-Zinn urges us to just sit there in his 1994 ode to mindfulness, “Wherever You Go There You Are.” It is worth visiting or revisiting this slim volume for even a few minutes each day, if that’s all you can spare. Kabat-Zinn makes it worth your brief while with gentle rebukes to the illusion that only by doing things can you get anywhere.
What we frequently call formal meditation involves purposefully making a time for stopping all outward activity and cultivating stillness, with no agenda other than being fully present in each moment … Perhaps such moments of non-doing are the greatest gift one can give oneself.
In this little lull we call the New Year it is tempting to commit to various things to do over the next few hundred days. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But neither is there anything wrong with a firmer resolve to do nothing for at least brief portions of the day.
For many years I was a fairly faithful meditator, if you call 20 minutes a day faithful. I still meditate daily but not in the way I was taught in the mid-‘70s by a Transcendental Meditation instructor swathed all in white who gave me my secret mantra and a flower.
I’ll testify to TM’s benefits anyday, its critics notwithstanding. I once spent a week in Fairfield, Iowa, home of Maharishi University of Management and epicenter of TM consciousness in America. Believe me, these people are mellow. And daily practice of TM or any other form of meditation mellows the mind with a kind of waking restfulness (and more restful sleep).
But lately I meditate by reading before the day gets moving and my mind gets going. Granted, this is once removed from true meditation, since reading qualifies as doing. Yet in the mere act of focusing my attention on someone else’s thoughts I find a blessed calm not available elsewhere most days.
I also find my cat, Abbey, often sitting on my lap during this meditative reading ritual. To simply gaze on her dozing there, her plush coat rising and falling as she breathes in and out, calms me wonderfully. To watch her simply be invites me to do the same.
Sometimes it takes a cat to raise a man. The guilt of not doing something can be extreme. What the Buddhists call the monkey-mind quickly gets antsy. “Come on, time to get on with it!” the monkey insists, impatiently drumming its fingers. But this is getting on with it, Abbey gently rebukes me. In fact this is it itself: just sitting, just being, doing nothing.
It is not time subtracted from life, as Thoreau put it. It is life itself, briefly pausing to appreciate the wonder of a sacred moment.