We’ve lost the art of sitting still. Forgotten its value, its place, its power, how much it can help. When times are hard and you’re feeling low, the ability to simply sit with those feelings is invaluable.
When’s the last time you tried to sit still and do nothing? If you tried right now, how long do you think you could?
How long would it be before your mind started to wander? Before your legs or back started to ache and you’d have to fight the urge to fidget? A minute? Even less?
How soon would it be before you felt like getting up and grabbing a snack or your phone? How long before sitting would start to feel uncomfortable, or unpleasant, or downright agonizing? Ten minutes? Maybe less?
How soon would it be before you started to question why you were sitting in the first place? How quickly would you manage to convince yourself that it’s a silly thing to do anyway and that you could sit for longer if you wanted to, but you don’t want to, because it’s a stupid thing to just sit still and you’re certainly not getting up because you can’t sit still because anyone can sit still if they wanted to, but you don’t right now, and you don't have anything to prove because it’s the easiest thing to do in the world anyway?
Or is it actually one of the hardest?
I’ve been getting into Zen Buddhist meditation lately. Meditating on these short, quixotic stories called koans. Reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The core of the practice is to sit, ideally cross-legged on the ground, back straight or slightly back, chest up, eyes closed, chin tilted slightly downward as if holding a tennis ball to your neck. Rigid, yet relaxed.
To just sit, just like that, and just be. That's the practice. No striving. No thinking. Just sitting, still.
It’s remarkably hard. Try, if you don’t believe me.
Blaise Pascal wrote that "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I think about that a lot.
It’s overstated, of course. Humanity’s problems stem from a great many things. Greed, arrogance and short-sightedness. A brutal lack of moral imagination. But I don’t find it hard to believe that our inability to sit still belongs on the list, perhaps far higher up than most of us think. We tend to place so much emphasis on busyness and productivity, on taking action, that we rarely consider whether we even have the ability to do the opposite, whether it's even worthwhile.
You don’t hear enough about the benefits of being able to sit still. Yet, I’m more and more convinced they’re enormous.
How often have you made your situation worse by reacting poorly to a negative or unwanted feeling? Got mad and broke something. Felt scared or inadequate and lashed out. Got anxious or bored and reached for food and distraction. Felt hurt and instinctively tried to numb the pain.
We know the yelling, the bingeing, the doomscrolling, drinking and drugs only make things worse. But we tell ourselves it’s unbearable, that we can’t take it, that we have to do something to make ourselves feel better, to get rid of the bad, uncomfortable feelings.
The instinct is so immediate, so instant, so deeply ingrained that we don’t even question it. We don’t even consider the other option: that maybe sitting with the pain, the hurt, the shame, guilt and grief, might work better.
We’ve lost the art of sitting still. Forgotten its value, its place, its power, how much it can help.
When times are hard and you’re feeling low, the ability to simply sit with those feelings is invaluable. Because the incessant urge to get rid of them as quickly as humanly possible almost always does more harm than good. We’ve lost so many good souls to that incessant urge.
To simply sit, when everything in your mind and body is screaming at you to do something, takes a sort of presence and patience—a mindfulness—that almost all of us lack. We don’t flex that muscle enough. We haven’t built that capacity, and without it, we’re powerless—every unwanted feeling becomes an irresistible call to action, even when we know those actions lead nowhere good.
We cause ourselves, our society, so many problems because we can’t sit still.
When’s the last time it even occurred to you to try?