Don't Just Do Something, Sit there.
8 Insights from 9 days on Silent Meditation Retreat 🧘♂️
|Jonny Miller 🐬||Jul 27, 2018|
Greetings 👋 >> from the foothills of the beautiful flatirons in Boulder, Colorado! The rumours are true, everyone here look like they've walked straight out of a Patagonia catalog (I felt at home instantly!) If this month's reflections feel somewhat existential, it could be related to the 5000ft altitude (NB. If you wish to bookmark this letter for later reading, here's the 'read in browser' link)
What I've been up to 🌳 >> Last week, I emerged from an intense nine day silent retreat at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, just north of San Francisco. As you might imagine, nine days is a decent length of time for introspective excavation... the results of which you can read below, paired with tentative ideas for mindful experimentation.
Quote I'm pondering 🤔 >> "While the sage // Who has to duck his head // When the moon is low, // Keeps dropping keys all night long // For the Beautiful Rowdy Prisoners." I remember reading this Hafiz poem many moons ago and always loved the image of sharing your gifts in the form of dropping lovingly crafted keys for others in the world.
As always, so much gratitude for lending me your attention. If you feel like making my day you're welcome to hit reply and share any thoughts of your own or just to say hello.
Stay curious out there!
p.s. do you have any curious friends who are also human?? Consider electronically forwarding this month's newsletter in their general direction.
[Left] The Gratitude Hut at Spirit Rock | [Right] my favourite oak tree sitting spot.
8 Insights from 9 days in Silence 🤔
1 // Don't just DO something. Sit there. 🍃
These are the words that came to me as I entered a staring contest with the life-size stone statue of the Buddha. It struck me that deliberately doing 'nothing' feels like a radical and subversive act in our productivity worshipping culture... I felt guilty and almost lazy at first! Without consciously realising it, most of us (myself certainly included) have bought into The Great Efficiency Myth; optimising our lives to 'do more' and viewing speed as an end in itself.
As Omid Safi writes for OnBeing, "this dis-ease of being busy is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing." Intuitively we have a sense that a life dominated by work in every moment, would feel diminished, but it's also very easy to get caught up in work's slipstream.
This is perhaps Spirit Rock's great secret: you're not actually allowed to be productive! Once your brain finally clicks that there is actually nowhere to be, no rush for things to be 'done', it calms down a few notches. With time, you separate your sense of self-worth from the perpetual need to be useful.
Shifting into this lower cognitive gear, walking becomes an art form and eating becomes a mindful melody of exquisite flavours in your mouth. It's hard to decondition our mental programs though. It takes strong intentional effort to pause, notice and feel that which is true inside. Giving voice to the griefs and joys that you can call your own – remember we are after all 'human beings' not human doings.
Life Experiment Idea >> There are a thousand and one interesting ways to slow down and train your attention muscles. For me food was the biggest revelation. My default setting to inhale dinner like a famished lion, so for me, consciously slowing down to just. chew. one. mouthful. at. a. time. was quite profound. As the legendary monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “Don’t chew your worries, your fear, or your anger. If you chew your planning and your anxiety, it’s difficult to feel grateful for each piece of food. Just chew your food.”
2 // Don't Believe Everything You Think! 🙈
We all have some intensely bizarre, intrusive and sometimes outrageous thoughts (or at least I do).
One of the highlights of the retreat was when one of the teachers (who incidentally also ordained as a monk in Burma) shared a story from his early days practising, he became so frustrated with his endless barrage of self-destructive thoughts that he stomped outside in the snow, when he saw an airplane flying overhead, he found himself secretly hoping it would drop a bomb on all the 'good meditators' still inside.
It didn't stop there. In his mind, the bomb dropped and then he imagined going through the remains and in a semi-Shakespearian fashion, smashing the rubble so that 'no two bricks shall remain intact'. And all this coming from an ordained monk in training.
Life Experiment Idea >> If you've come across 'The Artist's Way' you'll likely be familiar with the practise of morning pages. The idea is to write three pages of pure unfiltered, often totally insane streams of consciousness. It takes a bit of practice to open up the usual perfection-shaped filters that we apply to our writing, but once the damns burst you'll be amazed by what comes out.
3 // Facts Grow from Uncertain Foundations 🌳
Most seemingly obvious 'facts' once begun life as questionable hypotheses, just as today's great redwood trees begun life as fragile and vulnerable saplings. The 'certainty' of our home planet revolving around the sun begun it's life as a heretical conjecture in Galileo's mind (which makes you wonder, what other radical theories might exist today that will become tomorrow's facts?)
We sophisticated upright apes each sit somewhere on the spectrum of uncertainty. Ironically, one of the few certainties we can know is that the world is only going to become increasingly more uncertain! Those who are able to embrace uncertainty (becoming emotionally 'anti-fragile') are likely to be the ones who thrive.
Life Experiment Idea >> ask yourself how you might push yourself a little further towards the uncertain end of the spectrum. This might mean a minor variation in your standard take-away delivery order or quitting your job and signing up for 100 days of rejection therapy. Just acknowledge where you're at and act accordingly.
4 // Separate Intentions from Goals 🚀
Speaking as someone who graduated hoping to 'make a big old ding in the universe', this is something I've wrestled with for a while, recently feeling mistrusting of my own ambitious tendencies. I was however somewhat surprised to find a compelling answer lurking in a five-thousand year old yogic text: 'The Bhagavad Gita'.
At the crux of this epic tale, the wise Krishna advises our protagonist warrior Arjuna to separate his ambitious drive into noble 'aspirations' from 'grasping' or clinging to specific outcomes – which inevitably lead to suffering or 'dukkha'. The more I thought about this, the more sense it made and I've loosely adapted the idea as a surfing analogy (because, well that's just how my brain works) so please bear with me...
Much like jazz improv, the craft of surfing well emerges from responding and improvising as each new section of the wave reveals itself, perhaps racing ahead of a fast section or pulling into the tube if a steep section appears. As a surfer you might have a noble intention (e.g. getting barrelled) but if you were to pull in on every single wave you will likely end up wiping out 99 times out of 100.
Therefore, an aspiration of 'getting barrelled' must be 'held loosely', since your wave will tend to have it's own ideas. The great art of both surfing and life is knowing how to read the unique shape of the wave and then join the dance.
Life Experiment Idea >> If you are someone with goals and extended bucket lists (guilty) maybe rewrite a few, such that you'd be thrilled just to spend time chasing them, regardless of whether or not you're able to tick something off a list.
5 // Design Fun 'Oblique Strategies' for Life 🎲
Brian Eno is legendary for his musical genius, lateral thinking and co-creating the 'Oblique Strategy' – a deck of cards with aphorisms printed on for helping creatively blocked musicians through endlessly frustrating requests (an example card reads: 'change instrument roles').
However, I realised that deliberate inefficiency can be useful for non-musicians as well. During the retreat, I played with walking in a very slow zig-zag up the hill to dinner and then eating rice with chopsticks; making these choices interrupt our default mental programming and force us into the present (you might argue that the retreat itself is a 9 day long oblique strategy!)
Life Experiment Idea >> I've mentioned a couple and would love to hear your suggestions for being deliberately in-efficient in something you do on a regular basis in order to notice more.
6 // Homo Separatus (& The Meaning of Life) 🚶
This is at the heart of everything Alan Watts writes about e.g. "the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination" but it's taken me ten plus years to actually grasp the idea, likely because it's so damn slippery and challenges the foundations of our worldview.
Here's my take: humans in western cultures have constructed a web of stories to convince themselves that they are 'separate' (I've coined this as: 'Homo Separatus'). Which is perhaps why we obsess over the question of 'what is the meaning in life'? Maybe this wouldn't even occur to us to ask if that connection to the world were still strong. The feeling of being a drop in the great crashing wave of reality. The single note in an exquisite symphony of happenings. Seeking meaning only feels necessary when we deny the intimate connection with everything that surrounds us. As John Muir wrote “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” and we human animals are no exceptions from that.
Life Experiment Idea >> Get Outside. Get Outside. Get Outside. If you're like most homo sapiens. Forest Bathe. Jump in a river. Run up a Hill. No-one ever regretted going for a spontaneous swim in a lake.
7 // Gratitude Parkour 🏃
Just as the urban sport of 'parkour' turns a city into a playground – an opportunity to experiment with rooftop leaping or backflips over railings – so too with the skill of being grateful (otherwise known as self-guided near plasticity training for you left-brained readers). Or like me, if you identify yourself as being relatively creative, then view this as an imaginative challenge to craft your lens through which you experience the world.
Speaking personally, reframing my daily habits as >> eating = nourishing my body, or sleeping = recharging my brain made such a difference. In this way 'life admin' become opportunities to be kind to yourself. Another thing I've tried is writing "What can I feel grateful for in this moment?" on a piece of paper and putting it in my back pocket for the day, almost like dropping a question into my subconscious and waiting for answers to arise. Also, it's fun to realise that you can just think your way into joy and not have it be contingent on anything that happens 😄
Life Experiment Idea >> In each moment how many things can you find to feel grateful for (1 point for each, 3 points if the thought gives you goosebumps and bonus points if you can do this even when it's not convenient to do so).
8 // Knowledge is only a Rumour, Until it Lives in the Muscle 💪
Credit for this last one goes to the Asaro Tribe of Papua New Guinea.... imagine if everything worth knowing needs to be felt and lived rather than intellectually grasped. It's a radical idea that flies in the face of most of what we think about 'learning'. Whilst you may know on some level that there will come a day when you won't exist, you truly understand 'death' when the cancer prognosis comes, the car crash or the loss of a loved one. The Dalai Lama said that 'Wisdom doesn't come from thinking', and it's not like he's lacking in wise thoughts to pay attention to.
Life Experiment Idea >> Seek out the knowledge that can't be 'Googled'. 'Experiential learning' is all the rage in facilitation workshops these days.
🍂– How to let go
⏳– Life is plenty long enough
✍️– Hemingway and the T-Shaped Life
📞– Remember the sound of dialup internet
👨🏭– 'Jobselete' trailer (password: futureofwork)
🧠– Perfectionism is like being punched in the brain
🎵– Someone invented a new global musical notation system
💯– a deck of cards to inspire meaningful conversation (Kickstarter)
Words Scribbled Under an Oak Tree 🌳
I wrote my first ever poem during the retreat (although in fairness it felt more like it wrote me). I'm under no allusions that it might be considered 'good' (first times rarely are!) but it felt great to be connected to that slightly awkward, fumbling part of myself that had the courage to make itself known, whilst sitting under that glorious oak tree (pictured above). So in the spirit of sharing unpolished, imperfect expressions of creativity, here is what I wrote:
Above the glowing horizon,
A hawk circles above mist-soaked trees.
His wings are perfectly still,
As he leans into those invisible currents.
Suspending him above the world.
Recall the years you have spent,
Flailing your wings,
Yearning to soar.
All that was needed,
All that was needed,
Was to pay exquisite attention,
To the intangible rising currents,
And fall into their embrace.