What’s it all about?, why are we here?, what does it all mean?, is the answer really 42?
Well, like many people I’ve struggled with the big question from time to time and it has caused me a lot of trouble. In trivial I touched on the problem by questioning the worth of, well…anything and everything.
Heading off to work to do whatever it is we do is absolutely fine until one day its not. If and when the big question arises in your mind…then it can be very distracting and sometimes very destructive. Suddenly, you start cutting yourself up about all of the things you haven’t done.
Re-booting your life out of the mid life (or whenever it strikes) mire can seem un-doable and many never make it. If we are made of the strong stuff then we can brash it out and just keep getting up, putting on the shirt and tie and heading for the office. Its possible to deny your feelings and turn to logic instead to guide you, but since you only get one go on this ride it’s maybe not the best way to deal with it.
If on the other hand you are more of a Reggie Perrin type, you really must deal with it in a different way and this can be difficult for you and your immediate family and friends to deal with, but again you must find a way to indulge your craving for something different in a way that is least damaging to them or at least that can be entered into gradually so that the damage is minimised. You must also take care of having this defined as a “phase” that will pass soon, because in all likelihood it wont. Deep in your gut you will know what you want to do; trust your feelings and not reasoned logic.
This level of introspection can lead to deep doubts about self worth, about achievements to date, about the path you chose and about the paths you didn’t choose and can lead to deep depressive episodes and as such can be very dangerous with many seemingly stable, and successful people just not making it through. If even one person reads this and turns that around, then I would be very happy. This is a situation I found myself in not so long ago and partly due to circumstances and partly due to a deep seated desire to be around for my kids I seized an opportunity and changed my life completely.
What we optimistically refer to as work and try to detach from our real lives, is, lets face it…our life, so making this change is very much the same as changing your life into something more…well, you. Scary though it might be, you owe it to yourself and your family to go through with this.
This is where I found myself 2 years back and it nearly finished me on more than one occasion. Apart from my family, three people helped me to get through this and out the other side; a celebrity Quantum Physicist, a Dead Japanese Farmer and a reformed alcoholic buddhist.
The quantum physicist was Professor Brian Cox, although Carl Sagan also helped here. By getting a little, peak time televisual entertainment level understanding of the quantum world I was able to finally grasp the fact that the smallest constituent parts of matter that make me…me, will always be around and that they have come together to be me just for a short while. When I stop being me, these tiny particles of matter will be released from their current task and perhaps go off to become
constituent parts of millions of other organisms, but will essentially be around for all time.Carl Sagan and Brian Cox were and are also two of the calmest and happiest sounding people I’ve encountered so far.
The Japanese farmer is, or was Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote the excellent One Straw Revolution, a book ostensibly about farming, but actually about a completely different view on the way the world works from the one we are sold from birth. Mr Fukuoka’s deepest insight for me is that humans know nothing, that it is futile to cram your head full of “knowledge” because this assumes that we can influence things in isolation. Above all we simply can’t influence nature in the long term and he proved this over and over again with his abundant crops grown naturally among “weeds” using his “do nothing” farming method. Much of Mr Fukuoka’s writing and thinking is informed by his deep Buddhist beliefs and he was also a very contented and happy person.
Then I saw a small ad in my local newspaper which said that the local Buddhist group was running an 8 week course in meditation. In the past I would have told myself not to be so stupid, but somewhere along the line I had started to be more open to the benefits of mindfulness and was keen to go along to see what meditation was all about. I expected to encounter fully robed monks with bald heads; but instead I was warmly welcomed by a very normal group of people, led by a very normal man called Richard who told me over my first cup of tea with the group that he was a reformed alcoholic and had once been a nutter who carried a baseball bat in his car in case he got any trouble from anyone!
That was 8 months ago and I still go along every week to the group which has become a very friendly core of about 8 very normal (in a good way) people, occasionally supplemented by others who are curious about meditation.
So what is meditation?
Well, Buddhists believe that the entity that we come to think of as our “self” doesn’t actually exist and is instead the effect of all the influences we have encountered since and maybe even prior to birth. That’s it, take it or leave it, form your own opinion.
So, this “self” guy gets up to all sorts of mischief making for us and is more commonly described as the internal voice, negative self talk, self sabotage and shows up as traits, habits, addictions, behaviour patterns and in negative habits like procrastination and staying within a pre-defined comfort zone for all of our lives.
Meditation is simply sitting quietly and attempting to spend a little time away from the self. During meditation we don’t try to banish the self, which turns up as thoughts about what you’re going to have for dinner, did I lock the door etc. The idea is instead to observe these thoughts; one famous meditator says that he imagines the thoughts coming in the front door and passing out the back door.
Meditation slowly reveals to you that you are usually better off trusting in your feelings rather than your thoughts and during meditation you get the opportunity to watch the thinker or self.
The positive benefits of meditation are cumulative, so the more regularly you meditate the calmer and more together you become.
It has helped me to achieve the following in this order: to stay alive, to feel positive about the directions all of my life has taken, to take bold decisions about my lifestyle including banishing debt completely, living a more mindful existence, eating better, sleeping better, being calmer and more reasoned in all situations, being a better dad and husband and living exactly as I want, in the place that I want to be and finally to see through and reject the capitalist myth of happiness through consumption.
Meditation is easy, you just sit quietly and try not to think too much. By focussing on your breath you easily bring yourself back to peace if you are distracted by your thoughts. There is no right or wrong here, just try to sit quietly with your eyes closed for few minutes to start with.
Leo Babauta has a great guide here to help you get into meditating easily.