Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Zen of not Seeking Entertainment

I love my free time like a dog loves a bone. I guard it jealously and always look back to see who might snatch some of it from me. I look forward to filling up my time with entertainment from video games to catching up on dharma reading.

But too much free time gets me in trouble. I find myself overdosing on news articles and other entertainment, like a kid on Halloween coming down from a sugar high. I get irritable about the fact that I've wasted a whole day doing nothing but reading up on the Fiscal Cliff apocalypse. I question myself. Sometimes I even start to think it will be nice to get back to work, where life is regimented and I can meaningfully fill up my time trying to achieve something.

How odd it is that I wish for free time, yet when I get it I feel dissatisfied, like I'm wasting time. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche had a few things
to say about this:

To counteract the feelings of sadness and emptiness, people seek entertainment to distract themselves. This world of entertainment is designed to help you forget who you are and where you are. The setting-sun version of enjoyment is to forget your gentle sadness and instead become aggressive and "happy." However, what you're experiencing is neither real happiness nor enjoyment. This perverse notion of happiness is based on forgetting that you exist, forgetting that your mind and body could ever be synchronized. Such a notion of happiness is based on separating mind and body altogether. You try your best to do this by putting your mind on a TV screen while your body is slouched in a chair. That's the closest to magic that exists in the setting-sun world. All sort of entertainment have been developed so that your mind is kept away from your body. 

Trungpa's vision of the Great Eastern Sun is one in which we seek happiness by knowing reality, as it is. It might mean noticing the light shining through my window or the sweet loving innocence of my dog sleeping at my feet. In order to be happy, we don't need to augment the world by looking at it through the screen of an iPad (although there is nothing inherently wrong with using an iPad).

This reminds me of a feeling I had during dathun, a month-long meditation retreat I attended back in April. About three weeks into the retreat I was in the basement doing my laundry. I was pressing an iron over a shirt, feeling the steam rise up to my face when I suddenly realized that I was fully in the moment. It was just me, my shirts and an iron. My mind was undistracted. I ended up ironing all of my laundry, and for the first time in my life, I was ironing shirts cheerfully.

I can't say I've experienced this kind of mind/body synchronization while doing household chores since that experience at dathun. Meditation often works this way for me. I have some experience that cheerfully shatters my burdensome vision of how life is, and then that experience serves as my inspiration to keep on going, even if I can't get back to that experience for years.

The point I'm trying to remind myself about is that my lustful urge to be entertained is a setting-sun mentality. It gets me nowhere on the path to enlightenment. At best, it leads to watching a good movie that I can discuss at the office Happy Hour.

If I really want to be happy and know who I am, I need to be mindful of how I distract myself with endless waves of entertainment. Even work can be like a long video game in which we seek promotions and achieve high scores. Work can and should be meaningful, but a million workaholics show up every day only to distract themselves from the emotions that torment them. That's entertainment.

In the classic meditation book Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, Suzuki Roshi says, "In pure zazen there should not be any waves in your mind. While you are sitting these waves become smaller and smaller, and your effort will change into some subtle feeling." Too much entertainment makes those waves bigger and your mind harder to calm.

I still haven't figured out how to make any of this into a New Year's resolution, but for the next few weeks at least, I'm going to try to cut down the amount of distracted entertainment-seeking I do. Instead of making more waves, I'll spend more time noticing the crispness of the shirts I iron, the enthusiastic howls coming out of my neighborhood bar, the stink in the alley and the radiant smiles of the people I like to have near.


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