The Need for Speed is Suicide
Just stop everything you are doing right now! Stop thinking, stop planning, stop competing, stop comparing, and just breathe deeply for a minute. Now breathe for another minute. There—I have your undivided attention. For much of our life our attention is divided because we lack the awareness to just stop our mind from its incessant activity and movement.
We act compulsively from the activity of our mind without being able to observe it from a distance. As a result, we constantly respond only to our unconscious mental agitation. We feel that if we are not doing something then we have no purpose, and so we become anxious and stressful. We are trying to achieve one thing after another with no end in sight.
We become addicted to doing without truly knowing how to relax our mind deeply. Our mind has become accustomed to being anxious, stressful, and agitated because we don’t know how to stop the madness. Oh, and we need to be clear here: it surely is madness to be incessantly thinking and acting on those thoughts. Our world reflects this madness.
Social Stress is Individual Anxiety and Vice Versa
It is increasingly difficult for people to deal with the demands of society. The social structure that is built around us in this world demands that the individual continually strive to achieve innumerable goals in the vain hope of one day achieving success. Yet the success that some of us taste is like fairy gold: once we attain it, whatever we think is success turns out to be worthless—a gold that we cannot touch, taste, or feel, and in the end is only momentary, leaving us with a feeling of deflated emptiness. As a result, we try even harder to climb more mountains under the belief that at the top there will be real gold. But we only continue to find fairy gold. This is an absurd approach to life that we have all subscribed to. Real success is not about achieving goals as if they are ends themselves. Success is really about being at ease in your everyday life, where the process is more important than the goal.
Being at peace in your life is what success is about, but to realize that you need to completely appreciate the process of it. We need to think of our life in terms of a dance. What’s more important: getting to the end of the dance, or the process of the dance itself? We all know the answer but we don’t apply this wise insight to our daily life. Instead we strive toward what society believes success to be, which ultimately ties us in knots. We then think that to untie these knots we need to put our foot on the accelerator in our life. This is a recipe for disaster. There is no way to bring peace to your life by making yourself busier. A real feeling of success will never be achieved that way. Real success will be recognized only when we alleviate all of our stress and anxiety so we can approach life with a peaceful mind that is not perturbed by what we believe our daily struggles are.
But we are not taught to be that way. Our world unintentionally—or perhaps even intentionally—prevents our finding peace. We have to cease striving, no matter how noble or compelling we believe the so-called goal to be. Once we stop trying so hard, we will discover the power and success we truly want, even though we didn’t know it existed. We find this wisdom going far back to ancient times in the East. This counterintuitive approach to life is not accepted nor promoted in our modern world. From birth, our parents, friends, and schools teach us that if we want to be successful we need to do a lot of hard work.
THE GLOBAL PANIC ATTACK
The war we wage against ourselves is caused by over-filling our cup. We pack everything into our life, leaving no time for our mind to truly rest. We bombard our mind from every direction. The excessive busyness from multitasking all day—with digital devices everywhere, incessantly and mindlessly chatting all day—keeps us in a state of hypnosis that replicates sleep. This sleeplike state resembles the psychosis of serial killers and demagogues, yet it actually afflicts most of us. In books and films this state is represented metaphorically by zombies and the undead.
Some of the zombies in our world are our leaders, politicians. We expect critical judgments and efficient decisions from people who have their eyes open but are actually asleep. Think about it: some of the busiest people in the world are politicians, potentially the most unaware and asleep people in the world. And yet we rely on them to make big decisions for the welfare of humanity. This explains why many politicians are still hypnotically self-interested, without any real concern for the greater community. I have nothing against the role of the politician; it is just one example to accentuate what happens when we fill our cup with busyness.
In the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which originated from the great sage Lao-tzu and his classic text the Tao Te Ching, there is a focus on emptying your cup. In the Tao Te Ching Lao-tzu explains that when our cup is full we lose awareness of the Tao. Tao is a Chinese word referring to the Way or path of the irreducible essence of the universe that we feel in our experience, making us feel completely alive and present in the eternal now. He believes our struggles and suffering come from the “mind-cup” being too full of distractions and the busyness of thinking. Lao-tzu emphasizes that we should begin the process of emptying our mind-cup. He believes real wisdom is born in an empty mind. In fact, he would take it one step further by saying the empty mind is our real nature and this is how a sane person functions. In Taoist philosophy there are a few analogies to articulate Lao-tzu’s point. For example, when we look at a cup, what is more valuable: the cup or the space within the cup? Likewise with a house, what is more valuable, the walls of the house or the space within the house? The answer for both is surely the space, because without space to experience life there is no point in having either a cup or house. You couldn’t experience life without space, and this is Lao-tzu’s wisdom.
Gautama the Buddha also discovered the importance of this mental space, as it is impossible to be truly awake without it. He stripped the content and beliefs from his mind to see reality as it truly is. This enlightened state of the Buddha is something rare in our modern world because enlightenment is incorrectly thought of as constructing a life worth living, rather than deconstructing your life to make the process of living an end in itself. In filling our empty cup we try to construct a life that is always geared toward the future without ever being present in the now. The result of such perception is suffering, as we are never content with the way life is. We ignore the wisdom of the wise and continue to follow social convention even though we know it doesn’t lead to everlasting happiness. By filling our mind-cup more and more we are slowly but surely destroying ourselves.
These destructive tendencies are even more evident in our modern era than in ancient times. With excessive information, content, and stimuli, mental health issues are on the increase, and we have no idea why. One reason for this is because we rarely take into account our lifestyle, which is the primary focus of ancient Eastern medical systems such as ayurveda in India and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in China. If our life is out of balance, then from the point of view of Eastern medicine we need to change the habitual patterns of our mind and begin to slow down. From the perspective of TCM our inability to slow down results from an overexertion of yang (masculine, active, doing, hot energy) at the expense of yin (feminine, receptive, non-doing, cool energy). This results in a culture that is yin deficient and heading for both internal and external calamities. Essentially this is an overheated system from excessive motion within the mind and body. If we don’t slow down then mental health issues are inevitable.
Our modern understanding and approach to healing our psychological crises is all wrong. Prescription drugs only suppress the symptom without addressing the root cause. Our stress and anxiety are truly lifestyle diseases born in an unsettled mind. Many people suffer from these diseases, but we never seem to cure them of their psychological ailments. Stress and anxiety go on untreated. As a result our mind-cups begin to crack, which manifests as panic attacks, anxiety attacks, schizophrenia, and so on.
Lots of people have experienced at least one panic attack in their life, often without any awareness of why it occurred. They happen because we don’t slow down our mental activity. A panic attack essentially is your nervous system hitting the brakes, since you won’t consciously stop yourself. We take on employment that keeps us super busy all day long, and then we go home to all our digital devices that overstimulate our senses while we are under the illusion that we are relaxing or being entertained. Add to that the constant idle chitchat and gossip people churn out daily. Panic attacks are inevitable when we are anxious all the time. The mind really has no time to rest and be silent. As the Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh explains, we are essentially like cows ruminating on food continually. The food that we ruminate on is our mental activity, and it leads to all sorts of psychological problems. Thich Nhat Hanh states in his book Silence:
All the sounds around us and all the thoughts that we’re constantly replaying in our minds can be thought of as a kind of food. We’re familiar with edible food, the kind of food we physically chew and swallow. But that’s not the only kind of food we humans consume; it’s just one kind. What we read, our conversations, the shows we watch, the online games we play, and our worries, thoughts, and anxieties are all food. No wonder we often don’t have space in our consciousness for beauty and silence: we are constantly filling up on so many other kinds of food. Even if we are not talking with others, reading, listening to the radio, watching television, or interacting online, most of us don’t feel settled or quiet.
We’re constantly under mental attack and we don’t even know it. We believe that in constantly entertaining ourselves we are happy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Many people are enslaved by what they view as entertainment. For example, many people cannot go one day without checking their phone or email or social media networks. Does this make us free or are we more enslaved than ever? When mobile devices, smartphones, the Internet, and social media were created we thought they would make us happier because we would be more connected. But it has had the reverse effect. Being so connected has made us more anxious and stressful.
We no longer want to go for a quiet walk or sit peacefully in the park without our phones. We are distraction junkies. We are not really that fascinated by our phone or its content: we are just addicted to distracting our mind from experiencing reality as it is. There is definitely no need for any of us to be checking our phones, email, and social media all day, every day. None of us are that popular.
Real, everlasting freedom is our original nature, but we can recognize it only when the mind has completely fasted. The continuation or annihilation of our species depends on the psychological state of the individual, and that state is currently undergoing cardiac arrest. We believe that these distractions and the constant ruminating on our mental activity is a way for humanity to evolve. Yet what society offers instead does far more damage than we think. Mental disease will continue to increase if we don’t become more conscious about what our mind is consuming.
We might think we can fix the damage by changing just a few small habits, but it’s much more complicated than that. We are actually encountering the decay of our nervous system through the process of incessantly consuming external stimuli, which keeps our mind numbed and neurotic. The cure for our nervous system is a fasting of the mind so intense that our complete psychosomatic organism can heal itself back to its original nature.
Fasting the Mind by Jason Gregory © 2017 Inner Traditions. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www. InnerTraditions.
Jason Gregory is a teacher and international speaker specializing in the fields of Eastern and Western philosophy, comparative religion, metaphysics, and ancient cultures. He is the author of The Science and Practice of Humility and Enlightenment Now.