‘Stop The World I Want to Get Off’
Dr. Stephen Fulder
Most of us can feel at times that we are like one of those hamsters that keep running inside a small wheel in a cage. An alarming image in the Jewish mythological ‘Midrashic’ texts is that we are all like insects in a jar, which climb and fall, climb and fall. Life can feel so relentless, fast, busy, stressful, anxious and uncertain. We keep dreaming of stopping, of holidays, of lazing by the sea, of walking in the Alps, of getting off the wheel. If you ask people under what conditions they feel most well-being and peace, you would probably get responses like: ‘When I sit watching the sea’, ‘When I am walking in the forest’, When I am sitting on my veranda with a cup of tea’, ‘When gardening’, ‘When breastfeeding my small child’, etc.
But stopping is not so easy. We feel peace during short moments of a break, relative to the busyness that was. But if the break continued for long we would soon begin to lose that peace. Even if we really go to that cave or desert island that we dream about, how long would it take to begin to feel bored and restless, to miss people we are close to, to worry about our money or our family, to feel that life is passing us by. Even if we have that holiday we have been saving up for, it may not feel that much different from regular life, as we run about busily sightseeing, or arguing about what everyone wants to do within the family.
It is not easy to stop because we have strong built- in habits of restless activity. So the first understanding is that stopping has to happen gradually. We have to get used to it and then we will get to love it. It is like stopping the great ocean liner the Titanic. It takes some time to slowly stop, and if it is stopped suddenly by an iceberg it will sink. Our body tells us the pace. We can try the experiment of sitting quietly and watching how long before we need to move: probably not more than a few minutes initially (unless we are sitting in front of an exciting movie – but then our body is stopped but the story is racing). But if we sit quietly every day, soon the body can sit for longer and longer, as meditators well know. Nevertheless, it will take us a long time to be able to beat the sitting quietly marathons that my cat seems to be able to do without any problem whatsoever.
If we want to know real peace, we will need to deal with the habits internally not just the conditions externally. And this needs some effort and skill. Paradoxically, to stop and know real peace is quite an active process. It is an art. One of the main tasks is to really know and see what is it in us that makes us restless. We need to recognise and let go of the stress and the habits of un-ease. This is a psychological and meditative investigation. For example we can sit or lie in deep relaxation and check in the body where are the regions of stress and contraction. By meeting each and letting it go, we introduce a deeper state of inner peace. But it goes deeper than that, because those habits are connected to basic human survival drives, which have a tendency to take us over. For example the basic need for sustenance becomes a relentless drive for more, in which we are constantly unsatisfied, whatever the setting. The need to cope with threat may make us live with low-level anxiety, as if there is always some risk or threat that we haven’t thought of. Our views, opinions, conflicts, thoughts, fantasies, memories, disappointments, frustrations and so on , all written into our biography, will also be a constant source of agitation.
One way we can deal with all of these is by the acronym RAIN. R is Recognize. First we need to clearly recognize and acknowledge what it is that is arising that is stealing our peace. For example if it is a habit of self-criticism or judgement, we need to see it clearly, and name it. A is Accept. It is helpful to accept what is arising as just that – what is arising. And accept ourselves as we are. This is instead of setting up an internal battleground in the name of inner peace – which of course won’t work. I is Investigate. Look into it, see its dimensions, its projections onto the body, the way it runs through our mind-feeling-body system. N is Non-Identify. It is taking a step back and becoming a witness of the uncomfortable phenomenon that is arising. It is about reducing ownership of them. That will allow us to remain in peace even in the presence of these disturbing guests, that, as Rumi said, invade our house and overturn our furniture.
Clearly, stopping cannot be forced, it is not achievable by aggressively trying to control ourselves which just generates more waves. Nevertheless it needs some intention and persistence. Many forms of meditation exist which help to quieten our minds. Use of a mantra, of the breath, or of a candle, are obvious examples. This is very easy to learn, but not so easy to sustain. It does not need a great deal of mystique or religious mumbo-jumbo, nor expense. It simply needs some kind of regularity of practice to deepen the concentration or steadiness of the mind. In one of my groups within a workplace, I used a helpful kind of image. There were some participants who enjoyed taking a break from work to go out and smoke a cigarette. I used the image of a ‘cigarette break without the cigarette’ to drive home the simple message of how to stop in the midst of the busyness.
In fact we don’t need to hunt for inner peace, it is already inside us, though often much covered over. We enjoy that quiet of the forest, the sea, the cup of tea on the veranda, because it brings us back home to a place that we already know, going right back to the experience of the deep peace of feeding at our mother’s breast. The Sanskrit word ‘Samadhi’ is used for deep quiet and it actually means to gather ourselves together, to bring ourselves back home.
There is a famous ancient Buddhist story about a forest brigand called ‘Angulimala’, who killed 999 people and was looking for his 1000th victim. The Buddha heard about him and against the advice of his concerned disciples insisted on entering the forest alone. Soon Angulimala found him and began to chase him. The Buddha walked, steadily, smiling, but for some reason Angulimala simply couldn’t catch him, however fast he ran. So he shouted to the Buddha ‘Stop, Stop!’. The Buddha turned and looking at him straight in the eyes said: ‘I stopped a long time ago. You stop!’ This was such a surprise to Angulimala that all his aggressive intention evaporated and he asked him what he meant. Of course it gave the Buddha the opportunity to explain to him the teachings and soon Angulimala joined the forest monks.
What the Buddha meant was not that he became a couch potato! It meant that he stopped making waves, creating damage and disturbance, harming himself or others, creating friction, suffering or agitation. He got off the wheel and stopped in Nirvana, which is another world for cooling the fire. Stopping is living freely without resistance, with the stream of life: not struggling against it and not sinking under it.