I've spent the day (20 Jan) on airplanes, waiting in security lines and passport control lines, waiting at airport gates, waiting. It's the kind of day that underscores a basic truth that I have shoved into the background because it's the water I'm swimming in: I spend a lot of my day waiting for something to be over.
Buddhist teaching--at least the version popularized in my American circles--tells us that "life is suffering": the first of four Noble Truths. (How noble is suffering?) Meditation is prescribed as the remedy for suffering, but meditation can feel like waiting. This is very bad. I can't help but feel it's bad. Certainly, it's not what I wish to get from my meditation.
Modern life is full of waiting. Because we're social, all of us spend much of our day waiting for the slowest of us. Or we wait for some limited resource. "Please listen carefully because our options have changed. Please wait to hear all options before making your selection. Press 1 if you are a Platinum Star Preferred Customer""
Waiting for my computer. People who design software environments seem to be stretching us to our limits and beyond. Waiting for screens to load with (mostly) stuff I don't need and don't want. Ads are much more data-intensive than content on most web pages. The Windows operating system can drop into a mode--unanticipated by its designers--in which most of its CPU cycles are used to swap information from memory to disk cache and from cache back to memory.
It drives some employers crazy to watch their employees sitting idle during paid time. But they're not engaged as autonomous agents, tasked with accomplishing a goal in the way that makes the most sense given their current situation; rather they are confined to a strict protocol, to act in a pre-determined way regardless of how the system around them may be functioning or failing to function. Hence, employees spend a great deal of time waiting for one another.
Much of the time that I'm not waiting, I'm trying to "get something done" which is closely related. Part of me is doing the task, while another part is waiting for it to be over. I'm chopping the vegetables as fast as I can because the oil is already smoking in the pan, where I've turned up the flame to maximum in order to save time by pre-heating. If I swim harder my laps will be over sooner, but they'll be that much less pleasant along the way. High intensity interval training offers more conditioning in a shorter amount of time, but it hurts.
I've learned to be patient. I'm good at tolerating empty, waiting time. That doesn't make it good or right. It's not the way I want to live. I want to think about how to change the reality or, more realistically, change my attitude toward the reality. I want a practice that will lead to a new habit, a program to change my waiting behavior.
Are you getting impatient with the pace of this article?
What does it feel like to be waiting? What would it feel like NOT to be waiting?
When am I not waiting? Am I waiting while I'm sleeping? Lying down at night feels like a release, and I am not conscious of waiting to fall asleep. Up in the middle of the night, I can sometimes feel impatient for sleep. Relaxing doesn't feel like waiting. Often I'm waiting to eat, but then I'm distracting myself while eating, or else waiting to be done eating. Chewing is a grind.
Dream recall is waiting of a different sort--waiting for an image or idea or memory to gel enough that I can write it down. It makes me impatient. As I write now, I have a sense that I'm waiting for the right word to appear in my head, or waiting for the sentence to congeal around the idea.
What is multitasking about? Sometimes it can be a way to fill my life with more of the rich experience that I love. Sometimes it can be a statement that I don't value any of these chores in themselves, so I want to get them all done as fast as possible and move on to time spent in something more meaningful. A third possibility is that there is pain inside me that requires more and more distraction to insulate me from experiencing what is going on inside.
I don't want to spend my life waiting because it seems a tragic paradox. Life is precious. In my 70th year, I am aware how much of it is in the past, and how little of these decades I have spent savoring the texture of my consciousness. A voice from deep within me intuits that this paradigm of time as a scarce commodity that I squander while I am waiting is not reality, that indeed it is the root of my problem.
I can take a more positive view. What do I envision as my occupation and my attitude that I propose to substitute for waiting? Answers:
- A living relationship to the present
- Joy, if available
- Awareness of my sense experience and thoughts
- Empathetic attention to others, reaching out with my intuitive faculties to feel what someone else is feeling and to use empathy as a focal origin for sharing good will.
And how might I get there? Suggested therapies and disciplines include:
- A "homeopathic" or paradoxical approach: Experience waiting. Meditate with the focus, "I'm waiting for the bell to ring so this can be over"
- Introspection. Repeatedly say or write, "I am waiting for this exercise to be over", and write down my thought in response each time.
- Clock meditation. Sit watching a clock for 15 minutes or 30 or 60 minutes.
- Heartbeat meditation. Sit while counting 1000 or 2000 or 3000 heartbeats.
- Ask during meditation and throughout the day, "What is the highest calling for this moment?"
- Ossia: What is the richest experience that is available to me in this moment?
- Alter ossia: I invite my awareness to full aliveness in this moment.
- Sed alter ossia: I remember my intention to dive into the full experience of this moment.
The time I have spent waiting can be subdivided into
- Time when I'm actually in pain or discomfort, as trapped on a jet plane with a headache, noise and no room to move
- Time when I'm not in pain but don't feel in control of my time (waiting in line, waiting for someone's attention, waiting for a train or plane)
- Time when I'm waiting for my own brain to fetch a memory or produce an idea or parse a sentence.
Each of these situations may require its own separate approach