Wells, Water and Reflection (Article)
This article was originally published in The Friend Magazine
Three years ago, aged 21, I was diagnosed with leukaemia. I spent most of the next 9 months in isolation, in a sealed, airtight room. That time was incredibly hard, but it was also the most important and transformational of my life. Two years since I came out of isolation, almost to the day, I am back in a similar situation. As my friend put it: “there couldn’t be a more triggering set of circumstances!”. Yet now, away from the stress and struggle of being a young artist in the city, I am enjoying being back in the countryside, walking in the garden, and eating with my family. In fact, I feel a deeper peace now, perhaps than I’ve ever felt. I think a large part of this is that I have learnt how to do nothing – how to be bored.
It is surprisingly difficult to do nothing. In one experiment, scientists at the University of Virginia found that most people would rather receive a painful electric shock than sit doing nothing for 15 minutes. Why are we so afraid of boredom? Because, often, boredom is actually painful. In the absence of action, we are forced to confront and deal with all the things within ourselves that we would normally avoid.
Our response is generally to try and numb ourselves, so as not to feel this pain. It’s so easy to do so in the modern world. We are addicted to our distractions – to our busyness, our phones or our televisions. This distracted, automatic state of mind often leads to easy, selfish decisions.
As Quakers, we try to make decisions through silent, contemplative discernment. This is something we tend to do in business meetings (which are often an excellent place to practise being bored!). If you can “learn to be truly still, with all your head and heart, everything will be done by what’s around you” (Foster-Wallace). When we stand up to minister, it is because we feel moved by the spirit to do so. But to be moved, we must be still, and being still often means being bored.
Is it possible that there is a value to boredom?
Another use of the word “bored” is to bore a well. Bore-dom deepens our awareness of the present moment. It’s a painful process, because it means digging into oneself, into the darkness within, life long insecurities and fears rooted in memories buried deep in the depths of our brains. It means challenging our foundations, breaking the resistance of the earth - the assumptions that we build our lives upon.
And yet once we have done so, we have access to the divine source of life: water. Once we have bored the well, we can draw up our inner resources, and discover that all we need to live is within us. We can wash ourselves clean of the dirt of modern life, and drink deep from the pool of the Spirit that sustains us.
Water is often seen as an analogy for consciousness. In Zen meditation, one imagines oneself as a body of water – a lake atop a mountain, under the moon. The head rises like the moon, the body still and grounded as the mountain and the lake of the heart, in the centre, is still. Only when the lake is still, can you see the undisturbed reflection of the moon. We cannot see ourselves clearly if we are always moving, always doing and distracting ourselves. The water needs time to settle.
In August 2017, my doctors told me “there’s nothing we can do”. I spent a month trying to distract myself from the fact of my impending death. Within myself, I experienced boiling turmoil, the conflict of the two impossible things – “I can’t die” and “I’m going to die”. I was just trying to keep my head above water, not to look at the dark depths below.
One night, I was sitting alone in my room. Finally, I realised that if I was truly going to die, there was no point in trying to numb or distract myself. I surrendered. I looked down. Immediately, I felt as I was falling into darkness – and then suddenly my whole body was illuminated by Light. It seemed like I was flying, or floating; buoyant, supported by the weight of water. I realised that, like fish, this is the water we live in, so total and vital that we never notice it. Though on its own, water is soft and yielding, in mass, in the reservoir of the universal soul, it is endlessly powerful. The water nourishes, cleans, heals. A few weeks after this epiphany, I got a phone call. I had, spontaneously, gone into remission!
When we come to meeting, our minds may be full of chaos, storms of stress, the thunder of future-fear, regrets that stab into the mind like lightning. Yet in the stillness, the dark boiling waters settle. We hold a closed, sacred space in the meeting house – a reservoir in which our waters pool together, and become still. In the silence, we find resolution of conflict, of paradox. We become aware of the water.
When we find this peace, what we do is no longer motivated by fear or desire, or the need to distract ourselves. We can make genuinely conscious decisions, informed by the “promptings of Love and Truth in our hearts” - to which we are now, in our stillness, sensitive.
With our meetings closed, we cannot join together to do this. For many of us, this is hard. Yet this time is also an opportunity to start digging our wells, to grow used to the pain of boredom, and to recognise it as a way to learn about ourselves.
In Thailand, the biggest event of the year is Songkran, the New Year water festival. Crowds all over the country come together to splash each other with water, to release fish into the river, to wash Buddhist shrines and to dance. When, at last, we can meet again, bringing with us our well-earned water, our celebrations may be a little less loud, but no less joyous.
Originally published in The Friend