I’ve been revisiting some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings lately and thinking about consciously living with more mindfulness. That seems like a fairly gentle way to de-stress, be present in the moment and very focused on whatever I am doing. Sylvia Boorstein’s Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There is a down-to-earth how-to for elevating the quality of your life without making yourself crazy. It’s not a story; it’s a primer for giving yourself a meditation retreat that will establish or deepen a mindfulness practice. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to follow the schedule and reap the benefits. You just have to do it: sit, walk, eat, sleep. Simple–but not. Most of us don’t retain the skill, through childhood and into adulthood, of just being with ourselves.
Boorstein counsels you about setting up a retreat–in a formal retreat center, a borrowed cottage or a room of your house with the phone turned off and the family on hold for a couple of days. You structure the get-away however you can, even if you can’t actually get away. Prepare your exit strategy from daily responsibilities–someone else may need to walk the dog, cook the meals, collect the mail, etc. You’ll be busy doing nothing. Organize the most basic necessities–comfortable clothes, good meditation cushion, timer or alarm clock with a pleasing tone, a shawl or cover-up to ward off chills, walking shoes–unless you are lucky enough to be staying on a warm beach and living barefoot.
Walking and sitting meditation periods alternate between and around meals and sleep. It can be hard to just sit and empty your mind. Minds chatter–Buddhists call this monkey mind–and it can seem impossible to turn those streaming thoughts off. But that’s why they call it a practice. Let the thoughts arise, note them and let them go. Eventually they will go. At some point, you will become aware of your breathing. Focus on the breathing. Return focus to your breathing when a thought interrupts. No big deal. Do it over and over and the thoughts will get bored and go plague somebody else. But it takes practice and you don’t make a big competition out of it. Take a break and take a walk.
Here’s how you walk: find a clear, quiet, private place. If it is in your garden or along a wooded path, be sure you can traverse it without a lot of interruptions. If you are home and your path is a hallway, clear it so you can walk unimpeded. Set the timer or the alarm on your watch. Then stroll. Don’t check the time. Walk for half-an-hour. Begin by becoming aware of all the sensations of your whole body–the feeling of the breeze, sunshine, relaxed shoulders, relaxed breathing. Gradually your steps will slow and then you can focus on the sensation of your bare feet touching the floor or the movement of your knees as you step. If your mind starts up with its flotsam and jetsam routine, go back to the whole body awareness and run through the progression again. Stop when the alarm goes off.
There are many brief instructions for various ways to approach the sitting and walking practices and how to overcome the dread monkey mind, or at least get it to chill a bit. Boorstein relates the actions of the retreat to the precepts of compassion and awareness that are central to Buddhist teaching. But the lessons are logical and pragmatic, not didactic. You’re not becoming a Buddhist–you are becoming a more peaceful person. A peaceful person knows how to eat mindfully. There are ways to pay attention to the food, to your reactions to it, to the sensory impressions you have, to the acts of chewing and swallowing. Those tricks make you very present to the moment of eating a meal.
Throughout the book, there are short stories and anecdotes to illustrate a precept, a practice or a common pitfall. It’s very easy and very doable. You don’t de-stress by stressing over how you let go of stress. You do discover more of who you are, buried under all the layers of your busy, disconnected life. You could follow Boorstein’s guide for a weekend, a week or a lifetime. Every activity–or lack of activity–can be folded into regular daily life. Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There is a kind of Mindfulness 101. You don’t even need a retreat to try these techniques. You can practice them for a half hour here and there in the carnival of your quotidian. Little by little, they will help you to get past all the noise and really hear the music.
Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There: A Mindfulness Retreat with Sylvia Boorstein Sylvia Boorstein | HarperSanFrancisco 1996