It takes practice and skill to sit. I thought it was easy. How often do I just sit? I'm telling you it's challenging not to cave in and start doing stuff. Like thinking, for example. Whenever I sit I start thinking, stressing or fretting over some new catastrophe that is certainly going to kill me this time. Or daydreaming, that mental excursion designed to help me flee the emotional experience of...whatever. My mind never shuts off. I think so much I really do believe I'm sitting when what I'm actually doing is following my mind, like a parent chasing after a toddler, trying to keep her from wandering into dangerous territory. I can't front—sitting ain't easy.
I notice other people find sitting difficult, too. They want to explain a problem, solve a problem, ignore a problem, exaggerate a problem, minimize a problem. They can't just sit. Because we have so much difficulty sitting with ourselves, we have difficulty sitting with each other. We all want to do something, even if we don't know what the something is we want to do.
Take, for example, my experience with Pearl, an African American woman I see every Monday.
“My hands are lethal weapons. I can kill you with one blow,” she says as she pushes the front door open to the community mental health office where I work. Scarf tied to her head, white rimmed sunglasses, numerous necklaces, neck scarf, blouse, leggings, and tennis shoes. She looks like some psychedelic space traveler with a mothership parked outside. Her fetid clothing assaults my respiratory system. She refuses to take medication, so her delusions rise even above her body odor.
Tearfully she laments, “They don't like me cause I'm white. Why they don't like me?”
Her mind never stops, often not even for sleep. Persecuted by her own thoughts, she can't sit still.
Her symptoms make it difficult if not impossible to engage her in any meaningful way. (I'm defining meaningful as getting her to begin taking her medication and managing her symptoms.) However, like the rest of us, she is both here and not here, and learning how to sit with her for me is meaningful. Her psychosis lies outside any treatment plan. To be with her, to sit with her, to hold space with her requires that I reduce my narcissistic expectations and be with uncertainty. Accept, listen, and allow her to be who she is. The way that she is. Just sit.
It's not difficult to sit with her. It is difficult to sit with powerlessness, vulnerability, and the shame of knowing I cannot help her. I cannot change her into someone else. It's not difficult to sit with her. It's difficult to sit with the knowledge that my mind can leave me at any time, too.
Sitting helps you get over yourself. Sitting teaches you how to sit with others. Sitting gives you the experience of powerlessness. Sitting puts stuff in your face. So the next time you see an advertisement for mindfulness, a white woman in a leotard, sitting by a still pond inviting you to sit, remember sitting is not an escape. Sitting is not a vacation. Sitting is work. Don't do anything. Just sit.