Downing Street London

So the Lockdown continues and there’s a few lessons I’m learning; Lockdown Lesson #1.

The lessons are less about immediate survival, though that is one benefit. They are about refining my approach to llfe so I’m prepared once the Lockdown is eased. Lockdown is an opportunity both to take stock and take action over how I choose to live my future. I don’t need to replicate my past; I have a golden opportunity to change the way I live for the better.

Lesson #1 was triggered by an article published on the app Medium. It was a biographical reflection from someone who, as part of the university programme, opted to sign up for a season in a buddist temple. It was a momentary decision, and didn’t arise from a longing for silent contemplation. In brief they left early, driven mad to distraction through their dislocation from their life experience.

However, reflecting on Lockdown, they wrote;

‘Although I am living at home with my mom, being with my own thoughts this closely, for this many days, can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. In some moments of antsiness and boredom and low self-esteem, I would rather do anything other than sit here. I want to grab for things I am convinced can make the loneliness better ― productivity which leads to validation from others, busyness which keeps me moving just fast enough so I don’t have to acknowledge that I feel sad, scheduling back-to-back virtual hangouts so I can quell the small voice inside that tells me that people don’t like me.’

A list of distractions which alone can only create stress if forming the bedrock of daily living. They recalled the fact that on entering the buddist temple they had to surrender their mobile phone. This experience was like having a limb amputated. It struck a chord. How often do I reach for my mobile phone and idly flick throung news stories I’m not that interested in or endless Facebook newsfeeds for no apparent reason?

mayhem and madness

More troubling is that I do this whilst already distacted by some Netflix offering that fails to hold my attention.

This spoke to me. My mind is restless and demands constant stimulation. Yet, my active mind is never the space in which I shall find peace, tranquility or self realisation. It is always demanding I feed its restless energy, and in fact is driving me rather than actng as a valuable part of my persona. My brain thinks therefore I do; the tail very much wags the dog!

Silence, or wakefulness and watchfulness as I prefer to describe it, is not the ability to control the mind, but the refusal to follow where it chooses to lead. I start my day with 30 minites silence ahead of morning prayer,. I know my mind will seek to hijack and sabotage such minutes of pure watchfulness, but all I say is do your thing and I’ll remain present whilst disinterested in any thoughts you want to distract me with.

Like a spoilt child, my mind hates to be ignored. So it takes discipline and learning to leave it to its own devices, whilst I quietly contemplate the Divine, aware of the traffic noise my mind generates yet no longer engaged and thus distracted by it. This is the great learning that comes from entering the silent land.

So, Lockdown lesson #1; take your mobile phone, press the off switch and give it a rest. Whilst a useful device for certain purposes, like the brain, it soon demands my complete servitude. I live to please its every interruption and command. Yet, my will is neither fuelled by my brain nor my mobile devices. My will is the expression of my preferences. I determine the life and landscape I occupy.

Of course as a contemplative my phone seldom rings; few people feel the need for the services of a contemplative today. Besides which, poorly managed interruptions really defeat the very essence of the contemplative life. Separation is an essential part of my reality.

But I feel for all of us the rediscovery of the on/off switch for our mobile devices might be the quickest route to rediscover how best we might manage the restlessness that directs our lives. As we resume life beyond Lockdown this may give us a fighting chance to resist the temptation to subcontract our self-esteem and validation to external forces that both drive and rob us of the essential qualities that make us each unique.

The key is to move from being a victim of thoughts (the commenting, chattering mind) to being their witness (the heart’s stillness) . . . What we have observed of fear can be observed of practically any struggle with afflictive thoughts and feelings. We must move from being a victim of these thoughts to being their witness. Typically we spend many, many years being their victim. We are imprisoned by the chattering mind. Gradually we learn to distinguish the simple thought or emotion from the chatter and we discover an inner stability that grows into the silence of God.
Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation