Tuesday, April 18, 2006


I read an essay a few months ago in which the writer advocated spending a day alone, once a year, with no distractions but your own thoughts. It sounds attractive, especially after the past few, non-stop months, but for me it would be like forcing a couch potato run the marathon. I'd be in no better shape afterward, assuming I survived.

A more fruitful approach is to integrate quiet time into daily life, like regular exercise. My first encounter with that idea was the Rule of St. Benedict, a guide for monastic life written in the sixth century. I became familiar with it while attending Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, which is run by Benedictine monks.

You don't have to be religious to appreciate the central theme of the Rule: balance. The monks' days are divide into manual labor, quiet contemplation, socializing and service to others. The balance still fits well, even after 800 years. Labor was set at about six hours a day, which is bang on for productive work, in my experience. Sufficient food and sleep was considered important and the rule has little of the gratuitous austerities then fashionable. It was written for real human beings, exhorts them to be human, and it's still going strong.

Alas, modern life often isn't very amenable to balance. I may only be truly productive for six or seven hours a day, but my bosses don't want to hear that. So I'm in the office, typically 11 or 12 hours a day, eating both breakfast and lunch at my desk. Couple that with about 2 1/2 hours commuting, seven hours or so of sleeping, and that leaves about two hours a day to accomplish everything else.

That doesn't mean I can't integrate quiet time in my life, of course, but it does mean I have to make trade-offs that are difficult. I already spend too little time with my family and don't exercise enough, for example. I'm also an insatiable student. I've spent many hours of that free time this year learning Common Lisp, just for the heck of it. So, what goes? And when? It's an ongoing struggle.

Another approach is to make whatever I'm doing a quiet meditation. This idea is a heck of a lot older than the Rule of St. Benedict, stretching back at least to Buddhism. Basically, it's the belief that life is what is happening right now and that most of us wander through existence in a dream-like state, worrying about the future, dwelling on the past or feeling deprived of some imagined need, such as money or time. Those who reach enlightenment, Buddhists say, are fully present, fully aware of life, and at peace.

That idea is behind the "mindfulness" approach that has taken off lately. See here, for just a very recent example. And it's no wonder. "Continuous partial attention" is the norm today. We're always doing several things at once, while planning our next steps and worrying about the previous one.

Escaping from this is so hard that people try to find easy short cuts. One is extreme sports, which force you to be fully here, fully focused on the present moment, more alive. But thrill-seeking is a cheap, shallow copy of what an enlightened, mindful Zen Master can accomplish while washing the dishes, sweeping the floor or simply sitting under a tree. What the parachutist accomplishes is more basic -- a survival mode, an adrenalin-fueled rush. What the mindful can accomplish, even while skydiving, is to be fully human.

Learning to quiet that constant, inane chatter in our heads takes practice, however. And fighting it doesn't work. Try telling yourself to think of nothing... The way Zen Masters do it is to develop a level of detachment, so they can observe themselves wandering and gently bring their minds back.

Although gaining that skill takes a lifetime -- or several, according to Buddhists -- even the first faltering steps are worthwhile. Just yesterday, I was dwelling on all of the things that are hanging over my head, such as the big news events coming up at work that I must prepare for, the seemingly endless list of repairs needed on the house and the worries about my wife and children. And then I looked up and paid attention to what was happening around me. I was walking the dog, with my beautiful wife, on a gorgeous, sunny day. The birds were singing, the blossoms blooming and the only thing that needed doing, right now, was to be here and enjoy the walk.

Even in my busiest, most hectic moments, the contrast between my harried mind and the what is actually happening is stark. I may be jamming under a very tight deadline, with multiple people demanding my attention at once, but the present moment consists of making the sentence under my cursor read well, with no errors or awkward phrases. The present moment is always quiet, always peaceful.

I'd like to try a day of silence sometime, maybe 24 hours on a shoreline with a pup tent and a sleeping bag. But I suspect it wouldn't improve my life as much as the essay writer thinks. A better approach would be to just pay attention to the quiet around me. Right now.