Last week, I was able to complete two twenty-minute sessions of practicing waiting in silence: a non-guided meditation and a treadmill exercise. What is the big deal?
Previously I would never be able to get through tread-milling without the aid of music or a book. In fact, I was hardly able to get through it with a distraction aid. It wasn’t about fatigue, but I just didn’t have the capacity to do anything monotonous for long periods of time.
Whenever I had the opportunity to wait, I’ll be looking at my mobile device. I didn’t think there was a problem until I realised I was just mentally tired all the time.
It is not just about fatigue. Non-stop stimuli prevents our brains from relaxing, causing it to always be in a hyper-aroused state. This in turn, breeds a perpetual anxious state. Have you ever felt uncomfortable and twitchy without your phone with you? Then you’ll know what I’m describing.
Enduring monotony is the key to mastery
For most of my life I had thrived on my impatience. I am typically quick to start things, do things, learn, solve problems because I cannot stand having anything unresolved. But it only works on new things and experiences. Motivation is hard once I am over the thrill of newness.
I missed out on the things that require the capacity to endure long periods of monotony: exercising, playing an instrument, learning or doing anything that requires long, focused labour.
Of course, the thought of learning meditation was severely off-putting.
Being unable to wait = misery
Being unable to wait caused emotional and relationship issues. I got upset quickly and easily. I got upset as a child when I had to wait when my parent was late to pick me up, I got upset when the bus didn’t arrive on time, I got upset when things don’t present themselves with quick results, I got upset when a reply to a text message didn’t arrive in an expected time-frame, I got upset when people didn’t move or act at my pace. I got upset a lot and that made me miserable.
(…and I wasn’t even aware how and why)
Age and life experiences made me better, if only slightly. But trying to live a new way of life without a regular eight-hour job made me realise how deeply uncomfortable I was with time. Suffering from chronic pain makes it worse. There is the actual physical pain from a migraine, and then there is the intense suffering that comes from being at odds with the pain because I feel bored, helpless and useless.
Impaired by noise but addicted to it
I became slowly aware of how much noise is affecting my life, and yet I was addicted to it. I cannot stand being alone with my mind. I needed to always be doing or consuming something. I had a hard time not snacking. I kept scrolling on facebook — omg this is so funny; I just had my heart crushed because of this sad thing that just happened; I am so angry with the world right now because of injustice; I need to see what my 700+ friends are doing — without knowing it I was going through a rollercoaster of emotions in one scroll. I was consuming so much information that there was no space for creative thought to bubble up.
I don’t think social media and stimuli is bad per se, I think it becomes a problem when we are unable to control when we are exposed to it, or choose to do something else in place of it with deliberate consideration. It became my default behaviour whenever there are pockets of time in between. When I wake up, before I sleep, during commute, during long lines, waiting for food to be served, even while walking sometimes.
I realised for me the problem isn’t because I was addicted to facebook, but because I was unable to experience periods of time with nothing to consume. Facebook was just the easy option. I could open up Quora or something else if I remember it exists.
Just one more count
I started meditating regularly a few of months ago for slightly different reasons. I count my breaths while meditating: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5…okay this is getting boring but one more second…6, 7, 8…omg how long does this take…9, 10, 11…”
Just one more count, I tell myself at every step of the way. I was effectively telling my brain to wait just one more second, until the next.
I didn’t know the capacity to wait can be practised by repeating the same set of instructions. The trick is to actually have something to instruct, instead of letting it run wild on its own. Some people have mantras, others use guided meditations.
I started running. The first time I ran with music in my ears. The second time I challenged myself. Do I really need music as a crutch, can I actually practice running with nothing except my mind?
It was liberating.
It was liberating to be okay in the company of nothing but my self. Meditation has taught me to wait out my boredom and discomfort of monotony. Just one more stride.
It occured to me that I could do the same for other things. I started swimming more laps, not for fitness, but for patience. I added more time to my meditation sessions just to see how long I can wait. I wanted to practice being comfortable being uncomfortable, to stay mentally calm while my body twitched, to tell myself to be still while my mind is trying to convince me to quit and do something else.
Sometimes waiting a second or two makes all the difference
When people and books tried to teach me that meditation is freedom I had no idea what they were talking about. There was simply no mental model, no connection between the dots. How can sitting still doing nothing be freeing?
It is freeing when I realised I no longer have to immediately give in to the impulse and impatience of my mind. I may succumb eventually, but practicing the ability to wait buys me more time. Sometimes a second or two is the difference between spiralling into a meltdown and actually letting the other part of our brains to respond with rationality or compassion.
There is also this profound internal door that opened when I no longer needed things to help me escape from myself. I no longer feel anxious when I forget my earphones. I stopped feeling like I was always needing to do something else rather than the thing I was doing then. That previously uncontrollable twitch that governed me has become this annoying background noise I can now learn to ignore.
I don’t feel deeply uncomfortable with emptiness now. I still get twitchy, but since practicing the ability to wait I have a new voice in my head now. That new voice softly tells me to wait a while more. Sometimes she tells me to look up, to observe the aliveness around me, to see and hear the beauty I didn’t because I was always consuming something.
It is that same voice that was birthed simply by learning how to count, in order to learn how to wait.
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