By Marc Gilson
“… Meditate in your heart upon your bed and be still.” —– Psalms 4:4
The Drug of Expedience
We live in a world obsessed with expedience. We want our computers to be faster, our banking to be quicker, and checkout lines to be shorter. We want eyeglasses made in one hour and an oil change in no more than twenty minutes. We want our coffee makers to have the coffee brewing before we’re up. We want news and information in sound-bites. We use our commute as time to make phone calls, eat breakfast, and apply make-up; that is, if we aren’t telecommuting already. If it happened yesterday, it’s ancient history. If we can’t get it today, we don’t want it at all. If you can’t keep up, get out of the way!
We post-modern homo sapiens move urgently, think quickly, speak rapidly, act suddenly, and work at break-neck speed. For most of us, from the time the alarm clock jolts us into action at dawn, until we collapse into our beds late at night, we are blazing through our days. Life’s a blur when your drug of choice is expedience.
This rapid-fire way of living is deemed “convenient.” Faster = better. In our culture, the “convenience drug” is highly addictive, and most of us are hooked.
The irony is that all of this seeking after convenience may be having something of an opposite effect. Rather than making our lives easier, we may actually be complicating things (true of most drugs, actually). There is a price to pay for all of this high-speed, rapid-fire expedience, and in some cases it’s a matter of life and death.
By some estimates, over 80% of visits to the doctor’s office in the U.S. alone are due to conditions either caused or exacerbated by stress. And psychologists are quick to point out that stress isn’t simply something we feel when things go wrong. We’re inadvertently generating stress in our lives by constantly revving up the pace of life itself. While we’re busy trying to make our lives easier, we’re burning the candle at both ends when it comes to our health.
Stress isn’t simply a mental or emotional response to an external stimulus, but a physical state that can be generated simply by how we manage our thoughts. Some psychologists assert that simply thinking about something stressful is, to your body, essentially the same as actually experiencing it. Such is the power of imagination!
When stressed, a host of problematic changes happen to our physiology. Changes in metabolism, increases in cortisol, imbalances in the production of dopamine, melatonin, DHEA, serotonin, and more. These changes result in everything from sleeplessness and hypertension, to chronic pain, hair loss, and premature aging.
There are hundreds of factors that conspire to undermine our health when we’re under stress. And the problem is that our bodies and minds are almost always under stress. Physiologically, many of us live in a constant state of red alert. Our adrenals are producing high levels of cortisol and repressing DHEA production. Our cortical activity is reduced, while systems within the brain responsible for survival (fight/flight) are constantly vigilant. We spend less time producing restorative delta brain waves at night, and then wonder why we’re so tired in the morning. We eat our meals on the run, and wonder why our digestive systems can barely break-down the nutrients we consume and properly eliminate wastes. And we’re so used to it, we think of it as “normal.”
Author Richard Carlson sums things up nicely by stating: “Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness.”
(If you’re still wondering about the physical effects of stress, check out this article)
Even the noise generated by our high velocity lifestyle can have dire health consequences. According to an August 2007 report at http://www.guardian.co.uk:
Thousands of people in Britain and around the world are dying prematurely from heart disease triggered by long-term exposure to excessive noise, according to research by the World Health Organisation. Coronary heart disease caused 101,000 deaths in the UK in 2006, and the study suggests that 3,030 of these are caused by chronic noise exposure, including to daytime traffic.
Deepak Prasher, professor of audiology at University College London, told the New Scientist magazine: “The new data provide the link showing there are earlier deaths because of noise. Until now, noise has been the Cinderella form of pollution and people haven’t been aware that it has an impact on their health.”
The WHO’s working group on the Noise Environmental Burden on Disease began work on the health effects of noise in Europe in 2003. In addition to the heart disease link, it found that 2% of Europeans suffer severely disturbed sleep because of noise pollution and 15% can suffer severe annoyance. Chronic exposure to loud traffic noise causes 3% of tinnitus cases, in which people constantly hear a noise in their ears.
Research published in recent years has shown that noise can increase the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenalin in the body, even during sleep. The longer these hormones stay in circulation around the bloodstream, the more likely they are to cause life-threatening physiological problems. High stress levels can lead to heart failure, strokes, high blood pressure and immune problems.
“All this is happening imperceptibly,” said Prof Prasher. “Even when you think you are used to the noise, these physiological changes are still happening.”
Yet despite all the warnings, life seems to move at warp speed, with no signs of slowing down.
The Anti-Quiet Culture
It seems that our world has become prejudiced against stillness, opposed to motionlessness: an anti-quiet culture. We worship movement, activity, noise. That’s what gets our attention. Yet that’s what’s stunting our development and shearing years from our lives.
We usually don’t equate progress and growth in life with stillness. We don’t think there’s much to be gained by remaining motionless. There doesn’t seem to be much to learn from quietness. Without a stimulus for our eyes, ears, mouths, what is there?
When was the last time you heard someone say, “I’m really proud of my son. Yesterday, he sat in his room all day, alone, and deeply contemplated life”? Most people would say, “When’s he going to quit sitting around and get a job?”
But could something as simple as spending a few minutes in quiet stillness each day actually alleviate the effects of stress? By now, most people are quite familiar with the benefits of meditation. Whereas only twenty years ago, meditation was almost never cited as having any potential benefit in conventional medicine and mental health circles, it’s now seen by many as a staple of good health, along with proper diet and exercise.
I’ve been involved in the meditation community for over 20 years. In that time, I’ve come in contact with tens of thousands of people from around the world interested in meditation, yet who also confessed a series of reasons (excuses) for why they can’t do it. They say things like this:
“I’ve tried meditating, but never really got anything out of it.”
“I used to meditate, but it took too much time.”
“I’ve got kids and a full-time job. When am I going to find time to meditate?”
“I work 60 hour weeks and travel all the time. I don’t have a spare moment to myself. How could I meditate?”
“Meditation is too hard. It’s boring and after awhile my back hurts.”
“My doctor said I should learn to meditate. So I went to a couple of classes but couldn’t really make it work.”
“I try to sit still, but my legs fall asleep.”
“I’d love to find the time to meditate. But with my schedule, there’s just no way”
Our lives are often rich with family, friends, social obligations, work, and yet we’re impoverished when it comes to finding a few minutes to ourselves. As Gandhi once observed of Western culture, “Here are people with everything, except stillness.”
I’m familiar with all the reasons and excuses for not meditating. I’ve certainly made my own fair share! Meditation can be a tough thing to do. After all, it takes time, and nothing much really happens. At least on the surface. On one hand, there can’t be anything easier for a human being to do than to simply sit down and not do anything. But if you’ve tried it, you know that “simple” and “easy” don’t mean the same thing. If you want to see just how addicted to activity and stimulus you are, try spending 20 minutes in complete silence with nothing to read, watch, listen to, feel, eat, or drink. To some people, it’s akin to torture.
A friend of mine named Mike used to teach beginning meditation classes. He commented that most classes began with about 20 to 30 new students, and within two weeks, the number dwindles to about seven or eight. Once he began asking those who stopped coming to class their reasons why, most responses were like those listed above. Basically: “1) too time-consuming, 2) too boring, 3) too hard.”
With this in mind, I began assisting would-be meditators with a new strategy. Rather than insisting that they discipline themselves to meditate, in hopes of the benefits keeping them motivated to continue I decided to suggest a method of meditation that would address the “big three” objections.
This method is called “Sacred Spacing” and it’s both simple and easy (though there are rules, sorry!). Sacred Spacing involves nothing more than simply finding a space in your home where you can sit in comfort, undisturbed, for fifteen minutes at a time. This space must belong to you and you alone. It’s not shared space. It’s space that only you will occupy. It can be an entire room, or a single cushion in a corner on the floor of your bedroom. It can be the chair you occupy at the dinner table, or anywhere you can be alone and undisturbed. It’s sacred because it’s off limits to the hustle and bustle of your “normal” life.
Once each day, spend fifteen minutes sitting in your space. Bring with you one candle and light it, and a small glass of cold water. During your fifteen minutes, you can talk to yourself, but no one else. If you have an itch, scratch it. If you are uncomfortable in one position, switch to another. You don’t have to sit perfectly still and silent. If you get thirsty, take a sip of your water.
But you may not: watch television, speak to anyone else (including phoning and texting), eat, play games on your tablet, write, read, surf the internet, or listen to music or the radio. No pets or kids allowed. Remain in your space for the full fifteen minutes, with nothing more than your candle and your glass of water. When the fifteen minutes are up (set a timer if you wish), blow out the candle, finish drinking your water (even if you’re not thirsty), stand, and bow to the space you just occupied, then go about your day. That’s Sacred Spacing.
After you’ve practiced this Sacred Spacing exercise for a few weeks, begin noticing the differences in how you’re spending your time in your sacred space now as compared to when you first began. Begin noticing how you feel after you blow out the candle, finish your water, and bow today, compared to how you felt on your first day.
The idea is not to think about anything in particular, or to avoid thinking about anything. The point is simply to establish a space within which you can be, and not do.
You might be thinking that this technique seems so simple that it’s just corny and silly. But I promise that anyone who makes it a daily routine will begin to see their lives in a different, clearer, more peaceful way.
The Value of Emptiness
One early morning, several years ago, a homeless man approached me on a downtown street asking for fifty cents. He smelled of cheap wine and the stench that comes from many days and nights on streets and under bridges.
I was on my way to work, in a hurry, and in no mood for interruptions. I reached into my pocket and realized I had no change; but I had a few dollars. I handed him two one-dollar bills, hoping he’d let me get on with my walk to the office. His eyes lit-up and he quickly reached into his coat pocket and retrieved a small object. Looking into his grubby hands I saw that it was a ring made of thick copper wire with an empty mounting on top. He explained that he had just made it the previous day. He handed it to me and had me hold it up in the misty morning light.
“See there,” he said in a hushed voice, pointing to the top of the ring, “that’s where the diamond goes!” I looked at him standing there, smiling at me proudly from under his dirty gray beard. I smiled back, handed him the ring, and began to walk away. “Wait!” he said, grabbing my arm, “it’s yours.” “Thanks,” I said, “but you made this, you keep it.”
He stepped in front of me, “But this could be a diamond ring, you know. All it needs is the diamond!” He held the ring in front of my eyes as if displaying a priceless piece of real jewelry. It took me a minute, but it finally occurred to me what he was getting at: it was indeed a priceless piece of jewelry. He had made a space for something valuable.
I smiled at him and said, “Well, it’s an original, isn’t it?” He put the ring in my hand and began to walk away with an air of satisfaction. “There’s not another one like it!” he said as he headed down the sidewalk. I called out, “Thank you,” and went on my way.
I’ve encountered several such people before. But this one man sticks in my mind. For him, the reality of not having a diamond to go in his ring was not a problem. Rather, he found happiness in creating a spot for the diamond, a place for value and beauty, a space for something of worth. He could have just made a simple band with no place for a stone, since he had none. Or he might have substituted something for a gem; a marble or maybe a piece of glass. But his satisfaction came from his effort to make a space for something valuable, not from investing it with false wealth or fake riches.
I imagine that while he was making the ring he did so with a sense of meaning about what he was creating; a value far beyond what society would usually define as valuable. It wasn’t a ring lacking a diamond. It was a ring that was ready for one. And when he offered me the ring – nothing more than a piece of copper wire with an empty mounting – I experienced that same meaning and value. He gave to me something more important than a diamond ring. He reminded me that making a space for what’s important is important in and of itself.
Today I keep that ring with the empty mounting with me at all times; it’s not for sale.
Sacred Spacing means making a place for value, setting aside time for solitude, contemplation, and stillness. Yes, it will require time and space. But I don’t have time to meditate! Can’t I meditate on my way to work? Can I watch TV while I meditate? It’s so easy to fill our time with other things; often things of less value than a mere fifteen minutes of sacred, uninterrupted time.
Sacred Spacing is an oil upon the rushing waters of our high-velocity lifestyles. But therein lies its power. It doesn’t mix in. It isn’t something you do while reading the paper or balancing your checkbook. It doesn’t always fit neatly in between appointments, phone calls, or episodes of American Idol and CSI Miami. It requires sacrifice, devotion, and discipline. But if you really think about it, it really only requires us to see value in stillness.
When we can allow ourselves the luxury of that fifteen minutes without the habitual compulsion to fill it with something, we find ourselves in a different world; one where emptiness does not represent lack, but possibility. Where silence doesn’t mean boredom, but serenity; where we are able to shed the many uniforms we wear to undertake our work and other responsibilities, and just be.
This cannot happen without the time and space we must sometimes wrestle away from wild and frenetic external pressures. Simple? Yes. Easy? Not for most of us. Most of us are not used to stillness. We are not comfortable when it’s too quiet. We really don’t know how to make a place for value because we tend to fear the sacrifice of time necessary just to carve out a few minutes each day. Not to mention, stillness can be, well, boring! But bear in mind that boredom is nothing more than the mind without its pacifier. It might take time for the mind to wean itself from the addiction of stimulus, but as the withdrawal passes, a new level of centeredness and harmony supplants it.
Remember that a sacred space is not merely the physical environment in which you meditate. It begins on the inside, with the commitment to yourself that the space and time you make is, in fact, sacred. The countless demands on your time and energy may be important and necessary to attend to. But the space and time you make when you sit in stillness is for you and you alone, a precious gemstone placed carefully in the center of it all.
Marc Gilson is a writer, consultant, and life coach living in Lake Oswego, Oregon. For more on his coaching services, visit http://www.lightwavecoaching.com/ or email email@example.com