Picking up the threads of my review of Eknath Easwaran‘s excellent, down-to-earth and accessible book Meditation: common sense directions for an uncommon life from where we left it last time, having dealt with the basics, things for me get much more interesting.
When he started talking about Slowing Down and One-Pointed Attention was when I really began to wake up. So far he had been going over fairly familiar ground which my current meditation practice is successfully keeping alive, if not quite in perfect order.
But maintaining a slow and steady pace and reasonable focus – well, that was quite another matter. I am well aware that my journals, kept from 1975 till now, are full of my whinges about rushing around and trying to do too many things at once. Then, I record making resolutions to counteract this only to find that a few months later I’m back to whingeing again.
Was I missing something still? Clearly I was. I was even moved to start pulling some of his ideas, including slowing down, into my developing model of spiritual progress, as the cube above tries to illustrate. The top of the cube needs to be adapted to include the idea of one-pointedness more clearly.
I am well aware of what he points out (page 89): ‘a great deal of carelessness results from hurry.’ And from the consequent fatigue, I would add, as my own experience recorded in Marmalade and Meditation, testifies:
First, in spite of my lip-service to mindfulness, I became so ungrounded by the pace I was keeping up, that I spilt coffee on my lap top and destroyed it. That jolted me more than a little but I still did not fully wake up to my need to change something radically until, late at night a month later, in a haze of fatigue, with my whole close family in the car, convinced I was already on the dual carriageway which was in fact still half a mile down the road, I moved out to pass the slow moving car and trailer ahead of me. I was alerted to my mistake when I saw, with initial incredulity, the headlights of an oncoming car heading straight for me in the distance. I pulled back inside with time to spare more by good luck than good judgement. What shocked me most about this incident was that fatigue had warped my perception of reality so much that what I believed about where I was completely overrode the cues telling me otherwise that were plainly there for me to see and respond to.
She mused aloud to a friend: ‘I wonder what God is trying to tell me.’
To which the reply came: ‘Dorothy, you drive too fast!’
The same kind of answer came to me in a flash, in the aftermath of this near collision: ‘Pete, you’re driving yourself too fast.’
Our hurry is also contagious, though hopefully calm is too, and has even spread to the way we read. It feeds on the competitive drive that underpins so much of our culture (page 97). I know this but am still in the grip of the Hurry Up driver, after all these years and so much meditation.
So how does he say I can learn to stop?
Learning to Slow Down
His key advice comes almost at the end of this chapter (page 112) and is deceptively simple and beguilingly concrete for the most part:
The first thing… is to rise early so you can set a relaxed pace for the day. Eat slowly at mealtime, sharing yourself generously with others. Arrive beforehand at your job and work on the essentials at a steady rate, not pushed by the clock or competition. Build friendly and loving relations with those at work and at home by practising patience at every opportunity. Put things in order when you leave your job, and learn to detach yourself from your work at will. Cultivate discrimination in recreation so that you choose what really revitalises and avoid what drains your time and energy.
The mantram is also particularly helpful in the case of hurry, because it gives the restless mind something to fasten on and gradually slows it down. [When a mistake triggers a mind bomb] [t]he best course to follow at that time is to repeat the mantram a few times and recollect yourself so you can proceed at a measured pace.
He also advises (page 114), as many others now do in self-help books, to make a list of everything we feel driven to do. It will be a long list. Then delete everything that is not essential. He concludes:
Putting aside my likes and dislikes, keeping my eye on what was necessary, using as much detachment as I could, I struck more and more from the list. Soon half of it was gone, and I found I had more time to give to what seems likely to be of permanent value.
This though is only half the story, and in fact would not in itself tackle all aspects of my problem in this area.
We now come to remedying my other weakness that compounds my problem with hurrying: distraction and lack of focus.
He reminds us what meditation does (page 118): it trains ‘the mind to be one-pointed by concentrating on a single subject – an inspirational passage.’ It turns the mind from being (page 119) ‘the master of the house into ‘a trusted, loyal servant whose capacities we respect.’
This reminded me of McGilchrist’s brilliant The Master & his Emissary. There the left-hemisphere language and logic based mode of operation has usurped the role of the holistic right-hemisphere processing, much to our detriment. There may be deeper parallels here but now is not the time to explore them. I’m distracting myself again!
Easwaran argues (page 121) that we should work at learning to focus even on tasks we find unpleasant. If we do we might find they become more satisfying. Focused attention also makes us more efficient (page 122):
When the mind is unified and fully employed with the task, we have abundant energy. The work, particularly if routine, is dispatched efficiently and easily, and we see it in the context of the whole into which it fits. We feel engaged; time does not press on us.
So it can alleviate the hurry up as well.
His core advice here is simple, if we are to learn this skill (page 127):
The first step is the systematic practice of meditation, which is the perfect way to learn the skill. There is another valuable aid too: to refrain from doing more than one thing at a time, to abandon totally the habit of trying to perform several operations simultaneously.
This last point should be applied to everything, from work through eating to recreation, and our meditation will benefit. It’s a two-way street. And we will have fewer accidents – that should keep me out of trouble.
His summarising phrase is (page 139) ‘Concentration is Consecration.’
Which seems a good point at which to pause before completing my survey of what I have read of his book so far.