Play the Rest

“Play the Rest,” Bob Ryder

“Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  Ferris Buehler

“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.”  John Lennon

 

When occasion has permitted, I’ve been sharing reflections this year as part of a series exploring the 7 Principles of Mindfulness Meditation.  In this Buddhist tradition, an authentic life is developed by cultivating one’s capacity for attention; for a disciplined awareness of what’s going on in our immediate surroundings and bringing our thoughts and emotions into congruence with that present reality.  The skillset for that challenging venture includes…

Acceptance

Beginner’s Mind

Letting Go

Non-judging

Non-striving

Patience

Trust

You might recall reflections from the past few months on the subjects of “Patience,” “Beginner’s Mind” and “Letting Go.”  Today let’s consider the practice of “Non-striving.”

Only this and one other tenet from that list are defined in the negative, with is to say we do a favor for ourselves and those in our lives when we learn to resist our natural inclinations for judging and striving.  The problems inherent in judging are a little more obvious, if not easier to avoid.  But recognizing problems inherent in striving might be a little harder.  In fact, recognizing the experience of striving itself takes practice.  I know judgment when I see it, at least in other people.  Striving can be more subtle.

Maybe the most straightforward way to recognize striving is to compare it with synonymous concepts like ambition, getting things done, being productive, accomplishing things, making progress, getting somewhere, checking things off a to-do list, achieving a goal.  When I’m striving, my activity is organized around the notion of putting another notch in my belt, another bullet point on my resume.  Hikers and mountain climbers sometimes use the idiom “peak bagging.”  It means to accumulate a list of summits one has been to without necessarily having experienced the joy of traveling to and arriving in those places.  What’s the value in being able to say that you’ve been to the top of a dozen peaks over 14,000 feet if you didn’t experience any of them for the challenge and beauty each had to offer.  Wilderness author and philosopher Edward Abbey reflects that a person could spend a lifetime studying a tree – not a kind of tree but a single individual tree, and not know or understand everything there is to appreciate about it.  As with other aspects of cultivating attention, non-striving is about appreciating an experience for its own sake rather than for doing it for whatever it leads to next.

When I began learning about mindfulness, my first impression of the tenet about non-striving was that it’s a prescription for refraining from activity.  I interpreted the concept of striving as “doing.”  There’s an adage invoked by meditation practitioners that says, “Don’t just do something, sit there!”  The image of someone in the lotus position came to mind.  I thought the tenet of non-striving suggested that mindfulness is meant to be at least in part an escape from activity.  I thought it meant that work is incompatible with mindfulness, that people who’ve made progress cultivating mindfulness would regard work as unnecessary, as irrelevant.  In my naïveté, I supposed that achieving enlightenment somehow placed one above it all. As if the laws of physics and biology and economics and biology would become irrelevant. Obviously, that’s just silly. Yet another proverb from the Zen tradition declares, “After enlightenment, the laundry.”

As I’ve learned more about mindfulness, I’ve discovered that non-striving isn’t about doing nothing instead of doing something, rather it’s about doing things for their own sake.  It’s about mowing the lawn and weeding the gardens for the sake of cultivating an artistic landscape rather than to compete with the appearance of the neighbors’ yards, it’s about changing the oil for the sake of changing for the sake of maintaining a healthy machine rather than to save money on repairs, writing a report for the sake of conveying worthwhile information rather than for pursuit a promotion, studying for the sake of understanding a subject rather than for getting a good grade.

The problem with striving isn’t in having spent time that resulted in accomplishing something so much as it’s having accomplished something without experiencing it, without experiencing the value of the activity itself.

 

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Look at these two photographs.  Each was taken on different days within the past week as I walked with Daisy along the trail that winds past my neighborhood.  Depending on your frame of mind, walking the dog can be a very different experience.  Sometimes when we make our way along the familiar route, I’m covering ground with the intention of getting it done for that day.  Maybe I have other appointments I’m anticipating.  Maybe I’m bored or tired.  Other times – by luck or being thoughtful – I’m completely in the moment, enjoying the company of my dog and other people and critters and aspects of the natural environment.  In the moments I took these two pictures, it was the beauty of the environment itself that snapped me out of some distracted train of thought and into the beauty of the moment.  Looking at them helps me understand how much miss when I let my thoughts carry my attention and presence away from where I am and what I’m doing.  Striving “to get today’s walk accomplished” robs me of the richness of being alive for the anticipation of being alive in some other where and when.

As I get older, more and more often I reflect on what it might be like preparing for my death, assuming I can see it coming.  Maybe I’ll be struck by lighting and life will be over without having a chance to consider it.  But if I happen to live long enough that the complications of old age accumulate over the course of months or years, or – short of that – if I acquire some malady while I’m still middle aged that leads to a more gradual death, I imagine recalling moments in my life, appreciating moments in my life, that I didn’t realize as they were happening.  I imagine looking back on episodes and activities I experienced as tedious or even aversive at the time, activities that were means to an end, and recognizing in hindsight a beauty that was missed for having striven to get on to some more pleasant activity, for having craved the reward or recognition or relief of having it over with rather than experiencing the episode for its own intrinsic value.  However my life concludes, whether suddenly or in the course of a more gradual process, it helps me now to value my experiences for realizing that that experience itself finite.

As I write these words, I listen to my dog breathing at my feet – now yawning and scratching, now nudging my leg to indicate that the moment has come for finding the leash and exploring the neighborhood once more.  I check the radar and see the echo of scattered showers, and relish the possibility of feeling rain fall on my head and arms.  I marvel at the technology of my laptop computer and the internet through which I have simple and immediate access to gargantuan volumes of information.  I celebrate the community of friends and neighbors who will gather in a few hours to listen to my thoughts and share their own in response, and who’ll share the bread and cup of Jesus as a way of practicing forgiveness and peace in a crazy world starving for more of those commodities.  And I rise to find the leash and venture out with my Daisy to see and feel and hear what life is like on the surface of the Earth.

I’ve been taking music lessons to learn percussion for the past several months.  My teacher recently helped learn something important when he spoke about the value of “playing the rests like you play the notes.”  In the course of building the timing and coordination of fine motor skills, the mind tends to rush forward through spaces of silence to get to the next sound, the next activity.  But music is beautiful and interesting in part for the silences that exist as part of the composition. In this rhythm, there turn out to be 12 beats composed of seven notes and five rests.  Listen to how much more interesting the pattern is with the rests as opposed to just a consecutive series of notes…

Finally, consider this scene from “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”  The main character, Walter, has finally found a person he’s been searching for, a photographer, who has climbed to a high rift in the Himalayan mountains to capture an image of a Snow Leopard.

 

 

Non-striving is a frame of mind that allows us to appreciate the experience of being alive, of sharing life, for its own sake rather than trading it for the possibility of a future accomplishment.  Can you call to mind an activity or project or occasion you’d rather skip if you had your druthers.  Is there a part of your routine, a relationship or a task, an experience of traveling or doing or waiting for something else that you approach as a means to an end, as killing time, as an acquisition rather than experiencing the present moment in your life for whatever is has to offer on its own terms?