Blaise Pascal: “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room”
Everyone is prey to distractedness, to seeing solace in activity as an escape from experiencing ourselves. In fact this is one of the major obstacles to a meaningful life. Bodhipaksa argues, however, that the force underlying our distractedness is a creative one, and that properly channeled it can take us all the way to enlightenment.
I’ve always been fond of this saying from Pascal’s Pensées, which reminds me that not being at peace with ourselves is a human condition rather than a uniquely modern one. All people at all times have suffered the pains of boredom, self-doubt, loneliness, irritability, restlessness, and anxiety that come from not being at peace with ourselves. I’ve experienced my fair share of that.
Like many people I have an ideal of being at peace and of enjoying rest. I struggle in my life to live and even sometimes to accomplish something meaningful, and all the time with the idea that sometime in the future — in a few weeks or perhaps next year — life will be more spacious and restful and I’ll have more time for meditating and reflecting, and for doing things that I find truly meaningful. And yet when by some rare combination of circumstances I have some free time, I find that I soon start to think about what I can do with it. And then I’m back to square one.
It’s part of the human condition to be restless
It’s part of the human condition to be restless, to be seeking something better than we have at the moment. The Buddhist word for this is tanha, which literally means thirst. We all have a sense of thirst at the core of our being, a dissatisfaction that drives us to find meaning and happiness. But all too often we don’t actually move in the direction of finding meaning and happiness. We just move. Without self-awareness we are inclined simply to find diversion (the word “diversion” usually means “distraction” but its root meaning is “to turn away from”). We fill our lives with busyness, with distraction. And having done so we are temporarily released from our thirst. In the white heat of activity we are less aware that we are suffering.
Often the first thing that happens when someone begins to meditate is that they realize how distracted they are.
Inevitably though, we crave a lull in activity, being exhausted of or bored by the activities we’re engaged in. Running around pursuing happiness can be exhilarating, but it fails to address our deep-seated longing for meaning and happiness, and in the midst of busyness our thirst re-asserts itself, driving us towards stillness. And so we cycle through activity, a craving for respite, a brief experience of rest, and a renewed desire for activity.
When we pause and reflect — assuming we can find enough time and mental space in which to do so — we can become aware of this cycle and become dissatisfied with it. We can decide to make a break with our habitual avoidance of our real needs. And so we can decide to make a more conscious effort to find real meaning in our lives. That’s where meditation and mindfulness often come into our lives. We get to the point where the same-old-same-old looks tired and worn out and unattractive, and we intuit that we’ll really have to work with ourselves if we’re going to make a real change in our lives.
Inner restlessness is a powerful force within that drives us onwards.
What is meditation (or, more broadly, mindfulness) if not learning how to sit quietly in a room? Often the first thing that happens when someone begins to meditate is that they realize how distracted they are. And that’s the first opportunity to learn to be at peace with ourselves. When we see the inner tumult of our minds we have a choice: to become frustrated or to be forgiving with ourselves. It takes time and practice, but we can learn to accept that the mind is restless. Paradoxically, realizing this brings a measure of peace because we are less caught up in fighting with ourselves.
Our tanha — the inner thirst that drives us to look for a more satisfying way of being — now has a sense of direction and clarity. We develop more of an instinctual sense that the way to happiness is through facing ourselves rather than running away from ourselves. We realize that we have to transform states of mind that lead to unhappiness and cultivate those that lead to a deeper sense of fulfillment.
J’ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
We learn simply to observe our thoughts rather than to get caught up in fantasies; our mindfulness deepens. We stand back from our thoughts, just noticing them; our patience becomes stronger. We find it’s possible to let go of anger and develop kindness. We find that the mind becomes less restless and that there’s a greater sense of calmness. Rather than being caught up with inner conflicts we are more at ease and happiness arises. We feel a sense of direction manifesting in our lives and we experience greater confidence.
Ultimately, Pascal points out in that same passage in his Pensées, our desire for diversion is an avoidance of the sense of our own mortality. Our “weak and mortal condition” is a “natural misfortune” that afflicts us and renders us inconsolable. Our being, he points out, is contingent (we might never have been born had circumstances been different) and impermanent (it’s certain we will die). And thus there is a deep-seated fear of non-existence, to which the ego tries to blind itself by embracing diversion and removing any possibility for deeper reflection. Meditation helps here as well.
As we continue to observe the mind we realize that all of the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise in our experience are impermanent. Within ourselves we can find nothing that is unchanging and enduring. Everything is in flux. All is change. Where then, is the “self” that we fear will die? With continued examination we begin to realize that “death” is happening in every moment. To change is to die, and change is taking place in every instant. And if that’s true, then rebirth is also taking place in every moment. As something changes, it becomes something else, and that “something else” is born. Looking a little deeper, we see that there is no “thing” to change. There is just process. The ego, upon examination, simply ceases to exist (at least in the way we used to think about it). There’s no permanent self to be found in our experience. And since the ego has ceased to exist we no longer have to fear its destruction. Death has lost its sting. Life has found its ultimate meaning. Contentment has been victorious over restlessness.
I have to keep saying “no” to distractions in order to say “yes” to my dreams
Our tanha is not something to be seen as “bad” or even (in Buddhist terms) “unskillful.” It’s actually a powerful force within that drives us onwards. Without awareness it will drive us in circles where we make the same mistakes over and over. With awareness it leads us on to greater fulfillment and happiness.
In my own life I’ve found that I’m managing to live out my dream of being a full time writer. It takes discipline and mindfulness. I have to turn away from seductive diversions — even diversions like teaching that I find fulfilling and enjoyable in their own right. But I have to keep saying “no” to distractions (even to creative opportunities) in order to say “yes” to my dreams. And it’s challenging: the scary thing about the prospect of living your dream is that you may, when you get there, discover that it’s not what you want to do after all — and then where would you be? But it’s also rewarding and nourishing.
At the same time I have to bear in mind that no career — not even writing — can bring me true happiness. For that I have to face up to the “natural misfortune of my weak and mortal condition.” I have to cultivate insight. I have to learn to be able to sit — not writing — in a quiet room.
Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.
As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/bodhipaksa.