During his recent retreat at the Garrison Institute, we spoke with scholar and meditation teacher Alan Wallace about how to cultivate stillness, increase productivity, and determine whether an activity is worth doing.
Many people have the sense that they are too busy or distracted in their daily lives. What’s on the other side of that? If a person practices meditation regularly, do those feelings go away?
There’s a wide range of meditations that can be very helpful in a myriad of ways. Mindfulness meditation can help us avoid rumination. Cultivation of lovingkindness can bring forth a gentleness and a sense of caring and kindness in the heart. But whatever methods we’re applying, they’re probably a tiny percentage of our overall day. So while the methods themselves can be very helpful, what is most important, actually, is not how much time we spend on the cushion or necessarily what method or technique we use, but rather, it’s the quality of mind that we’re maintaining as our baseline. And for most people—psychological studies show this very clearly—the baseline is rumination. About 80% of the time, people are thinking about something that is not about the reality at hand, but they’re wandering off to an imaginary future or a past that has already ceased to exist. It’s not very productive, but it is very exhausting.
And so we can turn that around to something that is not exhausting and is productive. But this takes more than simply doing a technique here and there. The time we spend formally in meditation is the time to sow the seeds, so to speak. But they need to be nurtured, mulched, and watered throughout the course of the day, and that can bring about some meaningful change.
We live such fast-paced lives, so the first thing to do is to cultivate a sense of ease, because we’re just walking around chronically and habitually with an excessive amount of tension, tightness, and stress in body and mind. That’s a default mode, but we can also learn how to relax, release the tension of the body, and let the breathing flow unimpeded throughout the course of the day—not just for 15 minutes when you’re meditating, but also as a default mode. When there’s nothing you need to think about, then release thought and come right back to the present moment and be very attentive, mindful, and discerning.
Keep on coming back to that 30 seconds here, a minute there, 20 seconds here, 2 minutes there, throughout the course of the day. I call that “seasoning the day.”
You mentioned that this kind of practice will help make a person more productive. Can you say more about that? What are we producing and why?
We all want to be productive, but, you’re right, some of us should be less so. If what we have in mind is not helpful to anyone, except for maybe ourselves and our own pocketbook, then I would prefer people to be less productive. When we are productive, if we’re not doing something that is of benefit to the earth, we’re either wasting our time or doing something destructive. There are only three categories of activities: positive, negative, or neutral. But insofar as we do have meaningful aspirations, then it would be good, of course, if we could be more efficient, effective, and able to engage in such service with less wear and tear.
For that to occur, once again we come back to cultivating and sustaining a sense of ease in the body and mind—an ongoing composure, a presence of mind, an inner stillness—so that we move from stillness into activity. When activity is over, we come back to stillness. This way we’re not perpetually, chronically, and addictively involved in just going from one activity to another, much of which may be a complete waste of time.
So by “productivity,” I mean that we can focus on the task at hand for a sustained period without distraction, without falling into ADHD—either attention hyperactivity or attention deficit. If there is an underlying sense of ease, if we’re not feeling frenetic, driven, tight and stressed out. Then we are able to attend to our tasks with freshness and clarity, and we are able to tap into our reservoirs of creativity and intuition. This gives our productivity a bright, sharp edge to it.
Do you have any recommendations for how people can know if what they’re producing is valuable and worth pursuing? How can one be sure that they’re acting from the place of clarity that you’ve just described?
In terms of evaluating whether our activity in the world is worthwhile, I would first of all focus on motivation. Are you working on a task that, from other perspectives, could seem completely mundane and simply be just a way of making a living? Let’s say, for example, you’re standing behind a cash register in a supermarket and taking people’s money and giving them their change and so forth. I might say, “Well, that’s one way to make a living, but, boy, it’s pretty empty.” If one’s motivation is empty, then it is. But motivation is everything. You can have what would otherwise be a very mundane and pointless activity or livelihood, which you’re doing only to get the money, or you can take that same occupation and bring benevolence, caring, and attentiveness to it. If you bring lovingkindness to those you’re engaging with, then any task can actually be very meaningful. Not because you’re doing it in a different way—you’re selling it faster or slower or anything like that—but because your motivation can change everything.
On the other hand, say you’re a doctor, teacher, nurse, or in another position of service, if the motivation is just to make money, to increase your reputation or influence, to get promotions, and so forth, then, inwardly, it’s not very meaningful because of the motivation.
The next question, of course, is assessing whether what we do with our motivation is working. Is this really something worth doing? To answer this question, I would look in two directions. First, what is it doing for you? Do you see that you’re maturing and growing, that qualities that you value are being nurtured as the days, weeks, and months go by? If so, then this is an inwardly meaningful, self-directed, activity. On the other hand, watch the impact. Watch how you’re influencing those around you. If you see that there’s some benefit there, that you’re solving problems for people, then that’s a wonderful thing. If you’re helping the people around you find what they seek in terms of their happiness, and it’s good motivation on your part, then you can be assured that it is meaningful. You’re having an impact on the world and helping to solve problems, alleviating suffering and distress, and you’re helping people find the happiness that they seek. That doesn’t have to be large scale. It doesn’t have to be something that would draw a lot of attention to you. It can be in very small ways. But with seven billion of us on this planet, if, in our own small ways, we’re contributing to the well-being of those around us and helping alleviate the suffering, then that’s certainly meaningful.