Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There. That is a great title. And good advice. It is the title of a non-fiction book about conducting your own mindfulness retreat.

It is difficult to define a mindfulness retreat because different people and groups define it differently. You’ll see the term meditation retreat or even yoga retreat used interchangeably.

A search online will turn up retreats at various centers that are very different from what Sylvia Boorstein’s book is suggesting. One web post on the “best retreats” at well-known retreat centers offers mindfulness retreats where you can experience anything from Pranayama breathing lessons along with stress-management classes, facials, massages, and private yoga sessions. The center nearest to me offers two-night single cabin room accommodation packages with three meals a day, an arctic plunge pool, mud lounge, Scotch hoses (huh?), infinity pool, and services such as acupuncture and life coaching. The menu is not Spartan and includes fresh, raw, organic foods, juices, and smoothies as well as Mediterranean cuisine but also hamburgers and tater tots. Most of these “best” retreats are around $1000 for a weekend. That alone would cause me stress.

Sylvia Boorstein’s approach is a much more down-to-earth guide. The book guides you through a three-day retreat plan and also includes lessons on how to achieve through meditation practices some serenity and focus.

An important caveat is that you need a 3-5 day stretch where it will be possible to step away from your life. You need the time and a place, but the time is more important and possibly harder to obtain.

This rainy Memorial Day 3-day time would have been a good choice for some people, but it takes planning. For me, I had a variety of things on the calendar. None of those things were recreational or meditative. There were scheduled good things (meeting friends; an art gallery talk), obligations (dealing with my older sister in a nursing home), and the unexpected (a burned-out condensate pump on our air conditioner that flooded the basement). Life intrudes on Life.

Boorstein says that any place will do, but I think most of us would like something out in nature – the mountain cabin or the ocean beach – but a backyard works too. Solitude is important. Being distracted by people, including a partner who is not retreating or kids, will not work.

Other than that, you don’t need much besides the book. Maybe a mat or blanket and a chair or bench. Even those are optional if you’re good with sitting on the ground. You need to eat and drink but maybe this is the time to go with water and wise, minimal, healthy food too.

I was attracted to Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There by that unexpected title. It also reminded me of the first time I did some serious meditation days. My wife asked me what I was supposed to do. I said, “Just sit and empty my mind.” She replied, sarcastically, “You should be great at that.”

Of course, it is not easy. What seems to most people to be “not doing anything” is actually doing something quite difficult. Try to stop thinking. It is probably impossible, but you can get closer with practice.

This kind of practice and retreat doesn’t have to be attached to philosophy or programs, though it often is associated with one. I began my mediation practices in college because I met a girl who said she was a “Zen Buddhist” and I wanted to get closer to her. I became more attached to the practice than her. I drifted away from regular practice and being in a group after college. I reentered it in a more serious way when I met a man who is an American Jesuit priest, professor of theology, psychoanalyst, and Zen rōshi in the White Plum lineage.

Retreats, even if labeled Buddhist, are usually open to persons of all religious and non-religious affiliations. Weejend or weeklong retreats I have attended usually mix zazen (seated meditation in half-hour plus periods), kinhin (walking meditation, my favorite), chanting, dharma talks, and daisan (one on one interviews with a teacher), and beginners instruction. Sometimes they are silent. Sometimes they involve work at the center.

Though religion and philosophy do not have to be part of the retreat or your intention, my second serious reentry into meditation and mindfulness came when I went to talk by Robert Kennedy. His talk was, and his book Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit is, about the intersection of Zen Buddhism and Christianity.  Kennedy says that “What I looked for in Zen was not a new faith, but a new way of being Catholic that grew out of my own lived experience and would not be blown away by authority or by changing theological fashion.” He would say that God is in the Zendo.

For a time I attended his zendo sessions as they were not far from my home. But I have never been a good group member and organizations, membership, facilities, and fees all feel wrong to me.

And so, Sylvia Boorstein‘s book seemed right for me. In some ways, she is like Roshi Kennedy. Boorstein is a respected teacher of Buddhist Insight Meditation and has also remained an observant Jew.  One of her other books is That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist where she writes about how she resolved these two aspects of her life in a complementary way.

The lesson from both of these teachers is that mindfulness and even Buddhism do not replace your religious beliefs or is it a way to convert you. I haven’t come across any atheist retreat centers but they probably exist. Certainly, completely non-denominational retreats are available.

In Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There, she writes:

"I've noticed license plate frames that say "I'd rather be sailing" or "I'd rather be bowling." Sometimes I think it's fun to see the rather-be-doing frames because they are a hint about the driver. Other times I start reflecting about the fact that preferring to be doing something else always diminishes the present moment. I imagine starting a business that produces license plate frames that read "I'm totally content right now."

I attempted Boorstein’s retreat once before when my wife was away for a few days. I did it at home and I was too distracted. If I do it again, I really do need to “get away.” The basic schedule is to arrive, sit, walk, sit, tea, sleep, etc.

The book is intended to be read in sections with some time taken to reflect. My first reading of it was a sit-down-in-a-chair with my tea reading, not a retreat. Of course, armchair mindfulness is not the intention., but you could also do that.

Mindfulness cultivates the habit of being able to deal with life when things aren’t happening in the way we’d like. Mindfulness instruction is deceptively simple: pay attention. That is attentive sitting and alert walking. You can be in the moment when you’re weeding the garden or shoveling the snow. The practice becomes a part of your everyday life – not unconsciously, but consciously.

I doubt that he was a Buddhist or meditator, but Paul Revere had the words “Live Contented” inscribed on the wedding ring he gave to his spouse.

I took some ideas from the book that seem like little lessons, aphorisms, or koans.

Feel all of your body.
Slow is not better than fast, it’s just different.
Nothing is worth thinking about does not mean that Nothing is worth thinking about
There are no in-between times. 
Eat slowly. Taste it fully
Consider the interconnectedness of all things.
Discomfort comes from clinging to an experience that can’t continue. Discomfort also comes from wanting an experience to end before it is over. When clinging and aversion are absent, you experience freedom.


MORE
sylviaboorstein.com
Morning Star Zendo (Robert Kennedy)

Simple Wisdom

On another blog of mine I had been posting a series of short pieces of simple wisdom. That blog began as “Evenings in Paradelle” and I intended it to be shorter weekday posts while this blog are the longer Weekends in Paradelle posts. That blog became One Page Schoolhouse and has occasional posts that I hope inform readers.

Some of those short posts included Zen koans, quotations, and aphorisms. (I don’t see quotes and aphorisms as the same thing.) Some of the posts were migrated to this blog.)

An aphorism (literally “distinction” or “definition”, from the Greek) is an original thought, spoken or written in a “laconic” and memorable form.

The Aphorisms of Hippocrates is one of the earliest collections which includes aphorisms like this one:

 “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting,
experience misleading, judgment difficult.”

There are aphoristic collections (AKA wisdom literature) such as the Sutra literature of India, the Biblical Ecclesiastes, and in the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Robert A. Heinlein, Blaise Pascal, and Oscar Wilde. There are anthologies like the Oxford Book of Aphorisms.

There is even an anthology of Ifferisms – aphorisms that begin with the word “If.” Some samples:

“If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”  
– The Bible (Matthew 15:14)

“If we have not peace within ourselves, it is vain to seek it from outward sources.” 
– François de la Rochefoucauld

“If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how.”  
–  Friedrich Nietzsche

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”   
– Scottish Proverb

“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”  
–  Booker T. Washington

Some examples, like those below gleaned from a Wikipedia entry, do seem indistinguishable from the kinds of quotes you find in quote books and on posters and bookmarks.

Good art seems ancient to its contemporaries, and modern to their descendants.
— Plutarch

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

That which does not destroy us makes us stronger.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

It is not uncommon to commiserate with a stranger’s misfortune, but it takes a really fine nature to appreciate a friend’s success.
— Oscar Wilde

No good deed goes unpunished.
— It said Clare Boothe Luce but I’m pretty sure it was Tacitus

It is better to be hated for what one is, than loved for what one is not.
— André Gide

I’m going to add my own spin on the definition of aphorism. When you pull a clever line out of essay, poem, novel or other work, that’s a quotation. When someone sits down and writes an original short, memorable line that makes sense when you read it but it makes even more sense when you read it again and think about it, that is an aphorism.

I am going to nominate here some aphorisms written by James Richardson. He is an acquaintance. (A quaint phrase for someone who you can’t call a friend because you don’t know them that well, but have met and know better than many of your Facebook and Twitter “friends.”)

I could add a list of them here, but they are not best consumed in handfuls. To me, the best of them are like Western koans.

If you view a kōan as an “unanswerable” question, then you may not even want to seek an answer – but people DO answer koans. Rather than see them as unanswerable or even meaningless, look for an answer. Don’t get hung up on the “correct” answer because that is a dead-end. Koans do have some traditional recorded answers” (kenjō), but don’t be fooled into believing that they are anything more than additional questions.

Richardson’s aphorisms are not usually questions, so they don’t have answers. They are quotable. They require additional thought and explication.

Here are four of Jim’s aphorisms. Consume slowly.

The road reaches every place, the shortcut only one.

Shadows are harshest when there is only one lamp.

Each lock makes two prisons.

All stones are broken stones.

You can find more of James Richardson’s aphorisms in:
Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms  
Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays  
Life as Viewed in a Mirror: a Bok of Poems and Aphorisms

Also worth a read is Jim’s By the Numbers which was a National Book Award Finalist. 

Ancient Wisdom in Brief

An adage is a short, memorable, usually philosophical saying. These kinds of saying go by any number of other names, and though there are probably distinctions, they seem pretty similar to me. For example, aphorisms, proverbs and bywords are close synonyms.

I did find that an adage that describes a general moral rule is usually called a “maxim”. An aphorism seems to be more of an expression that seems “deep” and may not be widely used. But, one that is witty or ironic seems to get the tag “epigram”.

Many adages are ancient and if they have been overused, they may be referred to nowadays as a “cliché”, “truism”, or “old saw.”

Some more modern adages get labeled as “laws” or “principles,” such as Murphy’s Law.

The word “aphorisms” comes from a book by that name by Hippocrates that is a series of propositions concerning the symptoms and diagnosis of disease and the art of healing and medicine. The first line is “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience deceptive, judgment difficult.”

I found many lists of adages online that are very common, such as “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” and “Don’t burn your bridges.”

Erasmus
Erasmus, the compiler – by Hans Holbein

I was surprised to find how many adages come from the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, commonly known as simply Erasmus. He published several ever larger volumes ultimately with the final edition of Adagia (1536)  having more than 4,000. Most of them are  annotated Greek and Latin proverbs that he compiled.

Here’s a sampler of ones (translated to English) that you are likely to recognize:

More haste, less speed
The blind leading the blind
A rolling stone gathers no moss
One man’s meat is another man’s poison
Necessity is the mother of invention
One step at a time
To be in the same boat
To lead one by the nose
A rare bird
Even a child can see it
To have one foot in Charon’s boat (To have one foot in the grave)
To walk on tiptoe
One to one
Out of tune
A point in time
I gave as bad as I got (I gave as good as I got)
To call a spade a spade
Hatched from the same egg
Up to both ears (Up to his eyeballs)
As though in a mirror
Think before you start
What’s done cannot be undone
Many parasangs ahead (Miles ahead)
We cannot all do everything
Many hands make light work
A living corpse
Where there’s life, there’s hope
To cut to the quick
Time reveals all things
Golden handcuffs
Crocodile tears
To lift a finger
You have touched the issue with a needle-point (To have nailed it)
To walk the tightrope
Time tempers grief (Time heals all wounds)
With a fair wind
To dangle the bait
Kill two birds with one stone
To swallow the hook
The bowels of the earth
Happy in one’s own skin
Hanging by a thread
The dog is worthy of his dinner
To weigh anchor
To grind one’s teeth
Nowhere near the mark
To throw cold water on
Complete the circle
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king
No sooner said than done
Neither with bad things nor without them (Women: can’t live with ’em, can’t live
without ’em)
Between a stone and a shrine (Between a rock and a hard place)
Like teaching an old man a new language (Can’t teach an old dog new tricks)
A necessary evil
There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip
To squeeze water out of a stone
To leave no stone unturned
Let the cobbler stick to his last (Stick to your knitting)
God helps those who help themselves
The grass is greener over the fence
The cart before the horse
Dog in the manger
One swallow doesn’t make a summer
His heart was in his boots
To sleep on it
To break the ice
Ship-shape
To die of laughing
To have an iron in the fire
To look a gift horse in the mouth
Neither fish nor flesh
Like father, like son