The Practice Of Looking Out A Window

img_0527 How much time during the course of your day do you feel is spent distracting yourself from yourself? I certainly am not bad at this. Through reading, over-thinking, eating, watching films, going places, listening to music and working I have found several enjoyable ways of distracting myself from myself. If left unchecked, I can actually be a master of self-distraction.

I have found that there is a very simple way to find out just how much you distract yourself from yourself. All you need to do is sit down and look out a window.

Notice the colors, the light, the shadows, the life going on outside and the the sounds. See if you can keep your attention on these things for longer than a minute or two. If you are someone who spends a lot of time distracting yourself from yourself, you might notice that after a minute or two just looking out a window will start to feel very hard. You might notice a strong impulse to do something else. To pick up your cell phone (or what I prefer to can a mini-computer), to find that book that you are reading and keep reading, to clean the room you are sitting in, to go do the dishes, to return phone calls and/or check your emails. You might also notice that you will be thinking about your parents, a friend, your kids, your failures, your regrets, your amobitions and all kinds of other things. As soon as you start to feel like you are coming back into yourself you will probably feel like doing something else. But see if you can just sit there and begin to find what T.S. Elliot called “the still point of the turning world.”

The writer Franz Kafka once wrote, “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen. Simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” In our frenetic and highly competitive era where everyone is busy pushing back their fears, worries, uncertainties, loneliness and self doubts- few of us have probably experienced the world rolling at our feet in ecstasy for more than a few minutes every month or so. Despite all we do, we seem unable to align our doing and our being with our deepest yearnings for peace and contentment.

After five minutes of just sitting and looking out a window the urge to get up and do something might feel over-powering. After all there is so much to get done! Children to attend to, future events to be worried about, floors to be cleaned, plants to be watered, deadlines to meet, money to be earned and spent. But see if you can just keep yourself where you are at. See if you can just stay with your life as it is in the moment- looking out a window and watching. You might notice a kind of calm coming over you and if you are lucky you will begin to realize that our lives work is here in this moment. It is in noticing and paying attention to the sounds that we hear, the things that we see, our inhalation and exhalation, our body sitting on a couch.

Sure there is work to be done in the world. But like the writer Philip Simmons wrote, “Our work denies our doom.” We often keep ourselves distracted from ourselves because this allows us to distract ourselves from the fundamental fact of life- everything is impermanent, including you and everyone you love. This fear is at the root of what keeps us running but the irony is that the more we allow ourselves to be connected with the impermanence of all things, the more we are able to open our hearts and feel a deeper sense of connection to the world around and within us. The more we try and push away the impermanence, the more disconnected and distracted we become. And at some point, either today or in fifty years, we all will get a first hand experience of just how impermanent everything is.

So put away your phone, close the book that you are reading, stop planning or immersing yourself in your emotional drama. Just sit down on your couch or chair and look out a window. Spend ten or fifteen or thirty minutes doing this. Do it every single day if you can. Don’t do anything. Just watch. Become present with your life as it is. Sit with it. Silently. Don’t think too much about any one thing. See what happens once you find your still point.

The Counting Man

I count everything. There are 17 dirty dishes in my sink. My bed has 3 unmade sheets on it. I have 7 pair of shoes in my closet, 11 pairs of pants, 4 jackets and 16 black t-shirts. This morning there were 403 oat grains and 82 almond pieces in my bowl of oatmeal. Outside my window there are 9 trees and one of the trees has around 674 leaves on it. Two days ago I sat by the window of my house from 9am until 6 pm and counted how many people and cars passed by. There were 1,209 cars and 11 people on foot. This is how I keep myself pre-occupied during the darkest time of year. I do not know how my need to count things developed since I never particularly enjoyed mathematics. I prefer words over numbers but for some reason around this time of year I have this very deep desire to count things. When I read the New York Times in the morning I will count how many times certain words are used or how many stories there are about violence or the economic recession. Maybe counting is a way for me to feel informed. I am a solitary man and it could be that counting is my connection to a world that exists outside of me.

Every morning when I awake I do a twenty-minute meditation. I count my inhalations and exhalation all the way up to ten. When I get to ten I count backwards until I reach 0. I repeat the process until twenty minutes is up. My therapist believes that my obsessive counting is the result of my morning meditation. She says that the practice ingrains in me a connection between peace of mind and numbers. Maybe she is not wrong because it is true that right before Christmas, when the skies turn black- I notice that I begin to slip into a slight depression. My anxiety seems to be more active than any other time of year and counting everything maybe a way for me to calm myself down. When I finished the therapy session the other day, I told my therapist that she had 94 books on her shelf, 17 pictures on her wall and 12 wrinkles on her forehead.

Yesterday I killed over 3,035 ants that were crawling around in my bathroom. I had no choice. I am not a violent man but ants all over my soap, my towels, my toothbrush and the toilet paper is intolerable. I felt guilt after I killed so many ants so I set a limit for myself today. There are still ants all over my bathroom floor and ceiling but I have decided that I will not kill them all. I will exterminate 2,000 of them. I will spend the afternoon counting and killing. Once I reach 2,000 ants I will let the rest go for the day.

For dinner last night I ate lentil stew and managed to eat 1,023 lentils. It takes longer to eat when I have to count every lentil that enters my mouth. But maybe, just maybe this is why counting is good for me. Whether I am killing, eating or breathing counting forces me to slow down, to become present in the moment and be completely focused on what I am doing. I can not say I dislike this about counting. Normally I go through my life with very little awareness of my present moment experience. I am pre-occupied by what I need to get done, where I need to go, how I need to be- like a hamster chasing its own tail. Counting seems to wake me up from this never-ending dream and forces me to be here now.

My wife has been exercising in the other room for 41 minutes. I have been writing this for the past 28 minutes. I am using two fingers to type. The electrical heater by my feet has been on for 92 minutes. I have tried to count the rain drops that are falling outside of my window but so far it has been nearly impossible for me to get an accurate count. There are just too many rain drops to capture. Today I plan on going for a walk. I will walk for 80 minutes and during that time I want to count every single thought that enters my mind. I will divide these thoughts into two categories positive and negative thoughts. I want to know how many of my thoughts are negative and how many of my thoughts are positive. I can not take credit for this exercise- my therapist had the idea. She has observed that I tend to be a pessimist who sees the glass as half empty. Her idea is that possibly if I can become aware of the flow of negative thoughts through my mind I will be better equipped to turn these negative thoughts into positive ones. Since I want to be a positive person, who exists in joy rather than despair, I have been doing this exercise for the past few days. Yesterday I had 609 negative thoughts and 98 positive ones during an eighty minute walk.

I am assuming that once spring arrives I will no longer have the obsessive need to count- but for now I am surrendering to the obsession. I enjoy counting in the same way that a person enjoys their work. Counting keeps me preoccupied and distracted from thinking about too many other things. Like the Hindus, I also believe that thought is one of the most toxic elements that exist within a human being. Thought torments us and drives us around in the same way that a motor controls a car. When I am fully immersed in counting I am no longer thinking. I am in what certain scientists refer to as a state of flow. Clarity, peace of mind and focus take the place of habitual thought and it is habitual, unconscious thoughts that cause a person to lose control of their life. So I will continue to count. There are 13 unpaid bills, 8 pens and 2 notebooks on my desk. There are 9 plants in my writing room and 11 sticks of incense on the table besides my desk. There are 6 strings on my guitar, 1,902 dollars in my bank account and now at the end of this narrative I have written 1,083 words.