I was sitting in meditation with members of our sangha yesterday and struggling with an unusually busy mind. I once asked Thanissaro Bhikkhu for his wisdom on the scattered mind and he advised me to tell myself: "Not now..." A simple instruction, yes. But as with all things simple, I have found that it's easier said than done.
Here's the thing: as a writer, I find that the silence and concentration involved in meditation provide me with an ideal time to "write"--not with the pen, of course, but in the head. And because it's in the head and I want to remember each brilliant construction before it recedes into oblivion, I find myself writing and rewriting every phrase a dozen times, committing it to memory to insure that I'll have it ready to write down when I'm done. This leads me inevitably into an obsessive cycle of thought--and out of meditation.
"Not now." What a simple and obvious thing to tell the mind when it gets into this state. And in fact, when I manage to listen to myself and simply postpone the work I got engaged in, I find that the work has been continued somewhere in the unconscious mind and is ready, waiting for me, when I choose to return to it. It's a matter of trust, then, that whatever it is that's engaging me will not be lost--unless, of course, it was so trivial that it need not have engaged me in the first place. Which is, regrettably, all too often the case.
It's the same with worrying and planning--both activities that address a future I am not empowered to know, let alone to determine. It's the kind of futile work the mind delights in, teasing itself with alternate scenarios until it whirls, hopelessly lost in the activity it has created. My mind, as it turns out, does not much like "Not now." It resists, insists, persists. Time and again I bring my attention dutifully back to the breath, and time and again the mind gets back to its wandering. When--and if--I manage to quiet it, though, what a comfort it is, what a relief! To drop back into the simple awareness of the body and its breathing, the ambient sounds and the attendant sensations. When--and if--I manage to bring myself into the present.
Why, I often ask myself, should it be so hard, when the result is so incontestably pleasant? When what awaits me is a kind of ecstasy, or at the very least, an inner calm? I suppose that my mind has been trained since childhood to believe that it should be "doing something," that idleness is somehow reprehensible.
Then there's the horror vacui (I googled the familiar words, to be sure I had the Latin spelling right, and to my surprise I came upon this wonderful painting by the self-taught artist Adolf Woeffli...
... no vacuum there; but I digress)--the "natural" abhorrence of the vacuum, an emptiness too frightening to contemplate. So the mind does its work. It creates structures of words and images, it noodles with the unknowable and flirts with risks and challenges yet to be realized. It considers this action to be its sacred duty, and sulks or sinks into "boredom" when deprived. It thumbs its nose at "Not now" and tells me to get lost. Which I promptly do.
Ah, yes. "Not now." Such a concept, such a challenge. And, when heeded, such a release! The wisdom of "Not now" is not limited, of course, to meditation. I often reflect on how much the quality of my daily life might be improved if I could just stay present to what is happening in the present, and quit worrying about things over which I have no control--such as the future, or the past.