Some cultures have a commonly agreed time and mechanism for cultivating an essential skill every human will need from time to time: restraint. Here in the northeast corner of the US, there will be a good handful, but still a minority of folks, who are being encouraged to choose something to refrain from for the next 6 weeks or so of Lent. Fasting is a common practice among many spiritual traditions, including meditation communities. I hope it’s okay with my Catholic friends if we borrow and follow alongside their tradition, adopting this particularly powerful tool for cultivating awareness.
I could make the argument that meditation is simply the mother of all 12-step programs, for the unconsciously addicted. You might have noticed that it’s hard to quit habits, even those that aren’t serving you in any way. Practicing meditation, I cultivate the capacity to pause, to notice automaticity without acting on it, to feel the discomfort of unsatisfied urges without doing a thing about them, and then to choose how to proceed from an awake stance. This sequence, repeated over and over with commitment and with a kind heart toward myself, unbinds me from conditioned habits right at the root, and creates the opportunity for the new and creative to become available. In that sense, sitting meditation is one grand overall experiment in restraint. When I sit, I “fast” from all kinds of things: eating, yes, and also moving, talking, reading, entertaining myself with work or chatter, or generally filling up the time to keep from feeling life just as it is, for good or ill.
Practicing restraint by sitting quietly for a committed time each day develops consistency and patience in a formal way. This sets you up, then, for a more broad-based approach for cultivating awareness. You’re ready to pay attention, as you walk around in life, to whatever warrants seeing. Once you can see, you can choose what to partake of and partake in, and what to pause in front of without immediately engaging with. This is another level of restraint.
There’s no need to dive into rigorous asceticism. Most important is to undertake restraint in a way that’s doable. You might try to establish a sitting practice of 5 minutes per day to start, if you don’t do this yet. If you have a sitting practice, you might try refraining from broadcast news, or speaking sarcastically, for a few days. If you choose something that’s doable, you’ll get the opportunity to see something valuable. Setting the bar too high will quickly turn your effort into just one more fantastic, soon-gone resolution.
I once decided to undertake, as a deeply courageous act, to refrain from shading the truth at work. Wow. The amount of times I found myself toying with the truth just that little bit to make myself appear smart or on top of things was astounding. About 2 days in I was astonished, and after about 4 days I was laughing at myself almost non-stop, watching the little dances of deception. This was deeply humbling, and I’m thankful that I found my way to laughter that quickly. I could just as easily have gone into depression.
Is there something you’d prefer to do without? Rather than setting chocolate or your evening cocktail aside for the next 6 weeks, why not try refraining from what’s useless?