“Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself?”
― Lao Tzu
Sitting still is no small feat for the hyper-stimulated mind of the 21st-century. Nearly 40,000,000 Americans suffer from long-term sleep problems each year, with an additional 20,000,000 experiencing short-term problems— and those are only the people who end up seeing a doctor. This is obviously symptomatic of a larger problem: a widespread inability to quiet the mind.
Our distractions are inorganic. Science has developed not in congruence with nature but in opposition to it. We defy death and life with scientific and technological progress. Abstractly thinking about this isn’t particularly a huge part of the lives of most people, but the reverberations of inorganic life impact everyone. We have not learned how to exist in spiritual harmony with technological or scientific progress, and yet we continue to barrel forward at a resounding (and potentially destructive) pace.
We spend more time in front of screens than we do in front of anything else. We cultivate multi-tasking and single-mindedness side-by-side. The average American’s day is spent staring straight ahead at a self-imposed series of images for hours on end. I wonder if perhaps this has cultivated a simultaneous psychological inability to also look beyond the edges of ideological tunnel-vision. We are becoming less and less peripheral, less welcoming to ideas outside of a meticulously defined comfort zone. We enjoy being able to thoroughly curate everything we experience and to cherry-pick untested world-views. We’re stuck in the matrix.
It only makes sense that this has led to a profound inability to cope with the unexpected. Our bodies are, after all, entropic masses of molecules no more or less immune to change than anything else in the natural world. Sometimes things come up that we don’t want to acknowledge. Bad thoughts. Sad truths. Chemical imbalances. Spontaneous natural events.
These spontaneities, not the artificially-generated comfort images of our virtual lives, are the stuff of real life. They come and go and can really run us through the ringer, since we’re less-prepared to cope with discomfort than at any other time in human history. Again, the reason we can’t deal with the real is the same reason we feel stressed: we are distracted and looking ‘out there’.
Meditation has resurged in opposition to this distraction. By looking within, we find spiritual depth. We equip ourselves with the strength needed to confront the unexpected discomforts of human life, contrary to the inhuman tools we’ve been provided with by science and technology. These tools don’t help much; they usually just mask the problems. And they teach us subconsciously to mask thoughts instead of confronting the bad stuff head-on. Meditation is the opposite of staring at the screen, enabling a starkly unspiritual (and dare I say anti-spiritual) generation access to a certain degree of introspection.
This is of course what Lao Tzu means by letting the dust settle. Give the human mind a consistent degree of stillness and soul-searching and it will produce an organic morality of its own. This can differ slightly among different people, cultures, and areas, but a value system will emerge naturally from long-term meditative practice. This is a true value system. It can cause people some discomfort initially, since it is often in stark contrast with the delusional proscriptive value systems we’re fed by culture. There’s no need for these isms if one takes the time to cultivate a spiritual value system. The dust of the conceptual world settles, and deep natural truths begin to emerge.
Long-term meditation practice will put you both above and against the plasticity of the modern world. We begin to see this imbalance when reading ancient spiritual texts. Read any of the ancient Daoist texts, or even somewhat recent Zen thinkers like Deshimaru or Sawaki. You will find not a guide to but an ideological medication for modernity. No striving, no vanity, no greed. A return to intuition, inwardness, and strength.
Those who cultivate this strength will find greatness in the world. Those who let themselves get dragged down by externals and materiality will be enslaved by the world. Denying oneself primitive worldly pleasures builds and deepens character. These concepts are not exactly things you’d see in a content-sponsored think piece or a TV ad. They have no profit motive. Sit attentively and let the dust settle.