Saturday, 6 July 2013
Meditation (and life) – work or play?
My life fell off a cliff about a month ago. I suppose this is the mysterious working of the Spirit, but it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time – in fact I was suddenly off that side of things in a big way, and today is the first time as I write this, that it has occurred to me that it might be (the working of the Spirit, that is). I have certainly been ‘held’, as they say, these last few weeks, not just by loved ones, mainly my children, who have been wonderful, but especially by the kindness of strangers. As I have been traveling by almost every means of transport I have met quite a number each day, and I can only think of two who were negative (as in deeply unpleasant). As it happens they were both English.
I left my Kindle on a ferry and was feeling rather bereft. A kind young Englishman, on his way to a conference on pests of potatoes and tomatoes (which are apparently related in some way) gave me his book, which he had just finished, called ‘Running with the Pack’ by a philosopher at Miami University called Mark Rowlands. He likes philosophising while doing long runs (10 to 30 miles) because he gets into a zone, or several zones, of consciousness, where thoughts just float up and by, a lot like meditation. Although the book is structured around his various runs, mostly with his dogs, one of which was a wolf called Brenin, hence the title, it is really a meditation on the nature of work and play and on the intrinsic value of things. For me it led neatly on from the last book I’d finished on my Kindle – ‘How much is enough?’ by Lord Skidelsky and his son – which discusses many of the same issues.
What is work? Work is instrumental – that is, you do it for something else. So you do a job for the money, you may go running for your health, or to prolong your life, or to win prizes. By that definition, anything in life that you do not do for its own sake, is work. A man and a woman making love are not working. A prostitute of whatever gender almost certainly is – it’s not the act itself, but the money earned that is their motive. When you start to think about this, you realise how much of life is in fact a kind of work. That it consists in doing something for the sake of something else.
Despite my recent woes, I am quite lucky, because actually an enormous amount of my life has tended to be play. My work in computers I would often (and did) happily do for nothing. I have been for the most part physically fit and have hugely enjoyed swimming, gliding, skiing, cycling.
So I have mostly been a player, rather than a worker. But this is not to say these things have been easy or fun. Often they all involve extremely hard work, stress, disappointment, even pain (like long distance running, for example) – but I haven’t done them for any other reason than the sheer joy of doing them. I did try and get a few gliding certificates, but that was only because you’re sort of expected to and it’s more fun to have a challenge, but really all I was interested in was floating around in the sky over East Anglia for hours and doing aerobatics.
What about love, family, friends? At their best, these are all “play”. We love people for their own sake – our children, our partners, our friends. To that extent all these relationships are the purest play (which is a good definition of selfless love or agape, and perhaps why the Hindus talk of God’s play or lila).
So why did my life fall off a cliff, if I am such an accomplished player? Because pretty much everything over the course of the last few years became progressively less and less play, and more and more work, as in a means to an end – my job, my marriage and, and this is the point of this article, meditation.
Meditation became for me not an end in itself, a thing to do entirely for its own sake, but a way of coping with all the other things that were going wrong in my life, of escaping from them, of making myself calm down, and also of providing the escape route – that I will become a better, kinder, more capable, more loving person, because I am meditating regularly. Even perhaps become enlightened, one with God, go to heaven (which would obviously solve all my problems!). So meditation itself became work, and possibly, as a result, actually harmful. Because it allowed me to avoid the present and the reality of me, now. I don’t have infinite patience or love, or the ability to take on other people’s burdens, without breaking down. As Laurence Freeman has said a lot recently – the virus of perfectionism had got me, but I couldn’t see it. I should have talked to someone a long time ago and they might have been able to show it to me (what I was doing to myself and those around me, especially my wife).
This has ended up being rather more about me than I intended, but please take it as a loving warning - don’t let your life become work and, especially, don’t let your meditation become work.