I am writing this on a flight back to the US from England. I have spent the last two weeks in the UK, where I was born, visiting with family and friends. The UK is home and so visits back there become a run around of trying to see and do as much as I want to in the time available. The truth is though there is never enough time. For those who need their quiet time, the phrase “run around” can get the alarm bells ringing, and indeed my first week back was exhausting - seeing friends, meetings, coping with jet lag - read, “little sleep”. If you want to do one - see a lot of people in a short time - and are effected by the other - get tired easily and need recharge time - you need a plan B to keep yourself going…even if it is only a temporary fix.
To start, let me take us on a side trip from England to Southern India and the Tibetan refugee settlements where the monastic universities of Tibet have been reestablished. These particular monasteries are not quiet, reclusive places of contemplation. They are peaceful, yes, but they are far from quiet. The monasteries are centers of learning, in this case the study of Buddhist philosophy. Those who successfully complete the program of study are given the title of Geshe, the equivalent of a PhD in Buddhist philosophy. The monasteries are as busy as any university in the West. From early in the morning you hear the shouting of young monks as they memorize the Buddhist texts. They recite groups of lines out loud, over and over again, slowly committing books to memory. An accomplished memorizer can retain many volumes of text, which is an extremely useful asset when they are pitted against other learned monks in the centuries old form of debate that they engage in each evening…and more often than not, late into the night. During these very animated and sometimes intimidating encounters, which are designed to sharpen understanding, the monks defend their position by quickly referencing a line of text drawn from the libraries in their mind.
Added to all of the study, there are the jobs that monks have to do just for the smooth running of the monastery. Younger monks will attend to more senior monks, food needs to be cooked for a population that can reach into the thousands. All of these responsibilities along with their studies means that the only true quiet time is in the early hours of the morning. Some monks have little alone time for their own meditation practice. If they can get up in the early hours, that gives them some opportunity, otherwise they are forced to find another way to practice - not another place, but another way.
The ideal for meditation practice is a quiet place. Indeed within Tibetan texts much time is devoted to describing the ideal conditions for meditation. However, meditation is not about running away to find quiet time. Indeed my own teacher would sometimes disturb me when I was meditating and take me off to do some more mundane task. There is a place for quietening the mind, for allowing the mind to rest and let the agitation that is disturbing your peace fall away. When things get too much, we just need to come up for air. However, searching for results in meditation practice can be dangerous. Meditation is about doing the practice, not about looking for results. Just show up, sit down and engage in the instruction that you have been given. The results will come if you stay with the practice as you are instructed. Looking for results will draw you further from them. Meditation will not remove the storms that you encounter in life, but it will give you the tools and ability to be present with those storms and ultimately transform how you react to them. The peace comes through acceptance, letting go and transformation.
And so back to the Tibetan monastics. As you watch those monks who have woken up to early morning chores after a night of debate, you will probably see their lips moving. Listen carefully and you might hear some sounds coming from their mouthes. A lot of Tibetan meditation practice is made up of chanting sadhanas, prayers, and reciting mantras, while engaging in visualizations and reflecting on the meaning of what it is that you are saying. This can obviously be done in solitude without distraction, allowing more time for focus and reflection, but if that is not an option the Tibetans do these practices while on the move. They could be preparing breakfast for others, but they will be saying their prayers at the same time. They don’t wait for the outer conditions to be perfect, they might never be, they just get on and do it wherever they are. In time this becomes a habit and lays the foundation for those times when undisturbed practice is possible. It also means that you do not get lost in arguments in your mind over “how inappropriate this situation is”, or “I wish so-and-so would be quiet.” The outer conditions are as they are, you accept that and get on with your meditation practice, laying the foundation for a transformation of your mind.
But what if you do not have a Tibetan practice? How does this cultural observation translate in to dealing with busy times such as I experienced while in the UK? What might you do when finding a quiet space is not possible? How might you bring a meditative practice or what strategy can you develop to help find quiet in the busyness of your life? Here are some suggestions:
When a conversation quietens down, or you can afford to be more of a listener than a participator, anchor yourself to your breath. Become aware of the breath at the nose or the rise and fall of your belly. By drawing your focus down to the the belly you will also ground yourself. Instead of living in the anxiety of the mind that wants to get away and have a rest, you drop your attention. This will better root you to where you are, creating a more stable feeling within yourself.
If you are walking, become aware that you are walking. Use the footsteps on the ground as your anchor. If are distracted by thoughts in the mind, come back to the footsteps. Again, drawing the focus down more deeply anchors you to place.
If you are engaging in some activity, just be aware of what you are doing. If you are eating, just be aware of eating - of cutting your food, of taking a bite, the process of chewing and finally swallowing the food. If the situation allows, don’t busy yourself with chatter or reading, just focus on the activity at hand.
If you driving and the radio is on, turn it off. It is amazing how much that can distract you and turn up the volume on an already agitated mind. While driving, use the brake lights of the car in front of you, or a traffic signal as a reminder to return to your breath.
In essence, find a process that draws your mind away from the anxiety that is forming through your tiredness. Or as Elaine Aron says in her book The Highly Sensitive Person, “Think in terms of containers - who or what quiet, familiar presence could hold you right now?”