Doing less

Just as a tennis ball’s ultimate nature, to which it tends, is rest; so our ultimate nature, to which we all tend, is peace. Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

Think of your life as being fired from a gun.  You come out with a bang, in a flurry of noise and friction.  You contain all the energy you need to career through the air, which parts in front of you as you go.  There is momentum, and the world knows how to cooperate.  Many activities will be open to you, as they have been offered for millions of years – the chance to eat, the chance to hug and hold, the change to meet, marry and have children.  Your energy will give you the chance to do work for money: other people making a profit will enlist you to help them make even more profit.


But there will come a time when the energy lessens.  Throw a tennis ball into the air, perhaps across a room, and watch it slowly fall prey to the hold of gravity.  At first it looks like it could keep going for a long time, but before too long, air resistance, and the pull of the earth on its mass, will draw it in.  It will curve downwards and collide with a few things; bump against the furniture; eventually, it will sit still, no longer trying to go anywhere.  Occasionally a stray foot will kick it along, but again it will come to rest, and just sit there.


It is part of our biological makeup that we do not think about this too much.  If we knew, really knew in our bones, the extent to which we are like that tennis ball, a bundle of energy slowly losing momentum until we come to a halt… if we knew, then we might become quite depressed.  So biology has equipped us with a kind of blindness: the ability to continue to act as though we will never die.  We pursue things, and pursue things, and pursue things.  We share with each other films about never giving up; we celebrate the ‘do-ers’, seemingly miraculous people who juggle work and children and other activities with aplomb.  We blind ourselves to how it would be if we saw, really saw, that our trajectory is stillness.


In a way, meditation is the art of appreciating the stillness before it has killed us.  While still very much alive, we can train our bodies to understand that our ultimate nature, towards which we all tend, is peace.  Meditation is a kind of shortcut, through which we reach through the wasted energy of all our future suffering, and potentially arrive at an understanding of the emptiness of all categorisations.

You know all those things you divide into good and bad?  Viewed with wisdom, many of them can be seen as the invented armies in an imaginary battle.  It is so tempting to label as evil all those things that make you or your friends uncomfortable.  It is so easy to label as good all those things that make you or your friends feel justified and temporarily alive.

So while life is telling us that we are balls of energy careering through the universe for ever, meditation reminds us that it is also possible to be still.  An advantage of staying in touch with stillness, is that it prepares us for death and disappointment, to the extent that they cannot hurt us so much when they come.  Instead of meeting death and disappointment with disbelief, frustration and a sense of indignity; instead of experiencing all that suffering; we can accept change and loss with equanimity.  This makes us mentally more healthy.


Maybe make some little spaces for doing less. Instead of trying to fit in as much activity as possible, see what happens if you create some emptiness in your life.  Cordon off some space in your diary, and let it echo with silence.  Sometimes, even, just stop where you are, right where you are, and look around you.  Is it so bad to be doing less?  And, if it is, why is that?  What are you addicted to doing, that doing less of it is so painful?


Our natural trajectory as organisms is to start off with a burst of energy, and, later in life, to fade.  We are normally blind to this, and apply a lot of energy continuing to chase things which we are attracted to.  This can cause unhappiness when we experience loss, which is the other side of the coin of attachment.  Meditation can help us to accept loss and death, even before they have happened.  This can make us more mentally healthy, because we do not fight loss, instead accepting it peacefully.