Lessons about Sitting Still OR What I learned through…
My flight to Europe was canceled– twice. No flights allowed from the US to Canada. The sweet lady from PA whose house I wanted to rent for two months called and apologized, “So sorry, ma’m. Our governor does not want us to rent to New Yorkers for fear of the pandemic. I have to cancel your reservation.” The beautiful resort in Vermont told me to come I have to show a negative COVID result, but if I did return to NY, I would have most probably have to go through a 14 day at-home quarantine. What’s the point? Two weeks shut in for two days of escape? It’s the PAUSE. Not just in term of vacation, but of everything.
I am officially on house arrest. For someone with ADD and a concomitant wanderlust, staying put has been anathema. Since the beginning of the lockdown in mid-March, my struggle to stay sane in the same place while still making motions has been akin to Sisyphus pushing up his stone, while sitting on it. Ahhh, the PAUSE, the PAUSE.
Ok, I reasoned, I’ll make the best of it. I’ll take this time to be more “contemplative.” The PAUSE reminds me of an anecdote from the early Desert Fathers. When a young novice got antsy and ran to Abba Moses asking for permission to go to the city for some shopping or to go get water from the well, Abba Moses famously remarked, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Other Desert fathers coined lines like: “Go, eat, drink, sleep, do no work, only do not leave your cell.” Or, “Don’t pray at all, just stay in your cell.” Thomas a Kempis, in The Imitation of Christ, famously wrote: “Every time you leave your cell, you come back less a man” (I’ll add woman, too).
I feel for that novice monk itching to leave his room right about now. I would do anything to escape home, what has become a prison cell. I am going to implode and explode at the same time. I do not do well with routine and monotony. It crushes my creativity. Like a cornered rat I am scratching for any way possible to escape. It is an agonizing punishment. It corresponds to a vision of hell the lone soul separated from God and his fellow creatures. To be in hell is to be in solitary confinement .
What to do now? How many times can you go to the corner grocery? How many times can I check email? How many times can I call the same friends? How to un-PAUSE?
Try as I might what I am scrambling to escape most is myself. With all my insecurities my hang-ups, my passions. I am sucked into the vortex of memories roads not taken so that I spiral around the sewer drain of eternal regret and despair. Why did I marry that boy? Why did I not take that opportunity? I shouldn’t have moved here or I should have gone there.
Confinement for such a long period of time summons lots of soul searching in everyone and its corresponding resistance. It reminds me of detention in high school. When you are sitting shiva with yourself, the demons that camouflage in the crevices of full schedules and deep sleep rise up to stare you in the face. You can’t escape.
One of my demons is exactly that— my inability to sit still my inability to just be. Always traveling, always searching, always doing something. I have a lot of potential energy; my mind races. Sitting still is insufferable. But there is nowhere to go, there is nothing to do. Even the garage has been cleaned out and the sock drawers organized. When you switch from operating at 150 mph on any given day to 15, the engine startles.
What to do? What to do? Where to go? My mind spins wheels like a frenetic hamster. I went out of my way to distract myself with tasks and projects until it was useless. I was left to the void. The silence. The nothingness. The PAUSE.
I sat with the nothingness long enough to feel the vanity of existence. My guts churned with the soul crushing sadness of my own nothingness. My own mistakes and weaknesses.
This tendency to do, to do, to do is a reaction to the overwhelming oppression of silence. The unbearable heaviness of being; a way to fill the void. In the modern world, I have become so used to noise, to chatter, to running around doing this and that, that I do not know how to handle the opposite–the silence, the absence of motion, so much empty space. These things make me depressed.
To silence the clutter is to pay attention to the deep nothingness that lies on the fringes of life, that might, gulp, be at the center of life itself. It might be that I am so afraid of this existential angst of confronting the void, that I create all kinds of artificial and distracting environments to stray my attention away from it.
What has happened during the PAUSE is all these distractions have been put away. So the dread emerges ,that existential dread of nothingness, in those listless blue hours when no one is at home. It attacks me like a wild panther on the open plane with no cover or underbrush to hide in. When I feel exposed and vulnerable–that void which I fear is at the center of life, emerges to scare the daylights out of me. Pre-PAUSE I would have filled my world with easy distractions–a money-making career, cell phones, Macy’s sale days, cameras, Facebook, contacts, BMWs, socially scripted ways of climbing up the social ladder, the ambition to receive some prize, a husband and two kids in a colonial in the suburbs. I would even distract myself with myself.
But no more—Whoosh! All gone. Nothing but me and the void.
Yet slowly, slowly it happened. The nothingness and the sitting still forced me to do battle with my demon– to perform, to achieve, to do, to do, to do. I surrendered to the silence and the stillness and became silent and still. I sat and sat and sat through the stillness.
I could not run away from myself anymore because there I was, there I always was. I was locked in my cell, day after day. Nothing to do and nowhere to go. There you are—here. Deal with it.
In that stillness I heard the susurration of God: “You do not need to be in motion to move mountains. You do not need to accomplish in order to be validated. You do not need to be needed to exist as a being valued in and of yourself.” Sitting still this long by myself had opened up the vistas of self -awareness, as I had been running around getting lost in so many trees.
I have learned to settle in the stillness. I have learned that just being is not a waste of time. It is the grounding and the centering of self; it serves as the springboard for jettisoning into righteous action. I have slowed down long enough during this enforced confinement to sense the seconds not just the minutes passing by. Sitting still has forced me to become acutely aware of every passing moment. To live in the space of this present time. Not trying to escape it by retreating into the regrets and nostalgias of the past neither by racing to new horizons, plans and fantasies of some untenable future. Sitting in stillness has taught me the law of NOW the power of the present. Sitting still is the opposite of wasting your life: it actually enriches it.
The good that has come out of the PAUSE is the enforced reflection period. So many of us are thrust into the dialectic of meaning/meaninglessness. We have been forced to reevaluate our life’s choices and our goals. It has given us space and time to put the meanings in the centerpiece of our lives. When I consider how much fluff and nonsense, the minutaea and non-essentials that take up precious moments of every living day, I could scream. The PAUSE has allowed me to focus on the things that really matter—love, beauty, truth, creativity.
Strangely, I am starting to actually like the PAUSE.