“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan / The proper study of mankind is man.” Alexander Pope
We are all getting closer to our deaths. This is a truism. Even babies, moment by moment, are getting closer to death. This doesn’t seem to worry them. It doesn’t worry children. Generally speaking, it doesn’t seem to worry the young adult or the middle aged adult. Death is tomorrow’s concern.
But at some point, when the passion and fury of our everyday lives begins to cool, we start to recognize the imminence of our ending and we ask, at least I do, is it enough just to continue as is? Is there nothing more to life than the scurry of work or the filling in of those hours that have suddenly become less filled?
And since one question inevitably leads to another, you might, like me, end up with this question; what is the driving force of our lives? And you might conclude, as I have done, that it is our inability to resist distractions.
Meaning what? Meaning this; that distractions are all those things that cause us to act, desires of one kind or another, enticements, sensations that we seek after or seek to avoid. Our lives are built around these distractions. Work, play, tiny unconscious motivations that we hardly notice and are unable to resist; these are all distractions – more on the nature of these later – but it is these which lead us by the nose from the day of our birth to the day of our death.
But distractions from what? What is there in our life beyond the pursuit of, or flight from, one form of enticement or another? If we were able to recognize all distractions, large and small, and not react to them, what would be left? What is there within us that lies beneath the world of distraction and reaction? This is the question that intrigues me now.
A couple of assertions (which shouldn’t be too hard to swallow) are necessary at this point. Here’s the first; that the opposite of the mind which is forever in the grip of one distraction or the other is the mind which is quiet. This mind is aware, focused on whatever it has to deal with, but otherwise at rest. It is in a state of bliss, a quiet, unassuming, undemanding bliss. And – here comes the second assertion – it is only from a quiet mind that it’s possible to glimpse whatever might lie beneath.
This quiet mind is in stark contrast to the constant chatter that swirls around the minds of most of us. We all have our own repetitive cycles; old conversations, old memories endlessly re-hashed, old hates, jealousies, ambitions, frustrations, as well as all the old familiar trivialities, what’s for supper tonight, is there beetroot still at Tesco; the list is endless. The waters of our mind froth, seethe, bubble and boil.
This constant mind noise is, perhaps, a consequence of the fact that we all have to make our way in the world. We work, we play, we mingle, we have children, we don’t get what we want, we don’t get what we hoped we’d get, all that. And it’s all stressful, all, to a greater or lesser extent, the author of the unquiet mind.
But not all minds equally. Some ways of living lead to more mind noise than others. The pursuit of money or fame, or indeed the relentless pursuit of anything, takes you away from yourself, from the intrinsic quietness of your mind. It requires such frenetic attention; the meetings, the dealings, the attempts to control, all that stuff. And even though there may be a very few who can calmly rise above, there are plenty who buttress themselves with dope and booze and the constant need for more. I remember hearing Andrew Marr, the BBC presenter, talk on the radio about the fear of what would happen if the phone ever stopped ringing. The fear of silence, the fear of a life without distractions. This was shortly before he suffered a stroke.
There is a continuum of perturbation. Some work, however stressful, may contain elements that are calming. The work of doctors, nurses, carers or teachers, for example, may be calmed by the salve of reaching out to others, by having within their work a nurturing compost for the mind. And there may be simple work which is inherently un-stressful that can be made stressful by financial worries or demanding bosses. There are no secure generalizations here, just a recognition that the extent of our distraction is, to some extent, a product of the lives we lead.
But even apparently calm lives can be distracted lives. It seems we have a limitless capacity for plucking distractions out of nothing. We may be sitting on a hillside in warm sunshine looking down over fields of waving corn, our minds quiet, composed, happy, when, out of nothing, our mind turns to the gas bill or to a fallen hem on our daughter’s skirt and we’re away, lost, unquiet, unhappy.
So, what to do? I know of only one solution; if we wish to quieten our minds and reach a position where we notice, but do not follow, all our distractions, large and small, we must meditate. What form our meditation should take is a matter of personal choice, but that there should be meditation in our lives, I have no doubt. Eventually, if we work at it long enough, we might achieve moments of quietness and, from there, come to understand what lies beneath all our distractions.
Have I ever glimpsed this something that lies beneath? Perhaps. Briefly. Transiently. I say this hesitantly; it’s easy to delude oneself. In a brief moment of – let’s call it clarity – I saw it as a channel through which a slow moving sludge was flowing. Some, I believe, have called this underlying current ‘love’, but perhaps they didn’t see it as a sludge. Love doesn’t sound as if should be sludgey. But whatever name might be attached, it felt like a force of some kind, an underlying force, something of greater moment than the distractions to which we are all enslaved. Something to be pursued.