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.
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
- When I am uncomfortable, I seek distraction to pass the time. Would it be be more beneficial to set my attention on my inner pain, to notice the pain and discomfort and noise as the focus of my present awareness?
- When I am in line, the best experiences I have had have been connecting with others in the same predicament, making eye contact or beginning a conversation or sharing messages that reinforce our solidarity in the face of absurd rules that keep us trapped here.
- Surely I can learn to appreciate my mind as it is working, to watch it in a state of gratitude and wonder. Getting up to walk or do a minute of intense exercise or play the piano can be a way to manage my internal creative process, creating space for the idea or the paragraph or the algorithm to emerge.
A restaurant waiter today is assigned more tables than he can attend to, and he has no time to spare. But consider that the word’s origin comes from a culture with a different pace of life, before optimal efficiency became a religion, before money became the common denominator of all our values, before the mindset of capitalism had metastasized to dominate every aspect of our lives.
A restaurant’s patron could expect that there would be a person assigned to respond to his whims and fancies in the moment, not to hover about the table but to remain attentive within earshot so that whenever the patron desired service, he could respond without delay.
Through the 19th Century in Britain and Europe, people of modest wealth (not just the super-rich) routinely employed butlers and valets, maids and household servants who lived as adjunct family members, having traded their freedom and status for a lifetime of security and a pace of work that was often not overly taxing. Their job was indeed to be available, to spend most of their time waiting for instructions, being ready to act with alacrity when called upon. I don’t think that they routinely experienced boredom.
Consider the common expectation that we are busy. Beginning with an infant’s feeding schedule and nap schedule, we accustom children to time structures, so that by the time they are ready for kindergarten, they are amenable to a time for reading, a time for drawing, a time for recess, a time for napping. By the time we are out of grade school we have absorbed the necessity of “using our time” efficiently, and we have ceased to question whether time is a scarce commodity to be budgeted, or is it the ocean in which our lives are swimming? If Friday comes around and you don’t have plans for your weekend, do you feel uneasy with the implication that you may be less important or less in demand than others whose dance cards were filled in long ago?
Machines have taken away the need for human servants to perform many of the tasks we require for everyday comfort. But today, even machines are kept busy by the capitalists, as a way to increase efficiency and maximize profits. You may have a vacuum cleaner and a food processor that are used just a few minutes each week, but the factory owner who has invested in expensive equipment may feel a need to employ shift workers so that the equipment is in use 24/7, and the airlines have made a science out of scheduling to keep their craft in the air.
The words “bored”, “boring” and “boredom” appear nowhere in all of Plato. 2000 years later, Shakespeare uses “bored” and “boring” exactly once each, and both times refer to boring a hole through the earth. It would seem that boredom is a modern affliction. To “be a bore” meaning “to be tiresome or dull” first occurs in print in 1768, and at that time it is not about an absence of stimulus, but rather a grating, persistent irritation.
That doesn’t mean that before 1768 the prospect of sitting quietly or walking through a quiet meadow was regarded as inherently blissful. But it does suggest that there was nothing wearisome about unscheduled time, time without a goal, time spent comfortably in the absence of notable stimulus to the senses. This time passed in intimate relation with the self might be tortured or it might be blissful or anything in between. At root, it is the un-dyed texture of the living moment, the fabric of which life is made. It is, in the last analysis, all that we have.