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- Jon, December 2019
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"Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone." - Alan Watts
The above picture and quote have been making the rounds on social media.
This is only a snippet, however. Here is the entire quote:
Furthermore, as muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone, it could be argued that those who sit quietly and do nothing are making one of the best possible contributions to a world in turmoil.
It comes from Watts' book "The Way of Zen," and this particular passage is discussing how most people in modern society view something like "sitting and meditating" as a waste of time.
To the contrary, the usual view is things need to be fixed in our lives (and the world), and in order to fix them we need to think more and do more. Sitting and meditating doesn't lend itself to either of those!
Watts makes this observation to support his original quote:
"Yet it should be obvious that action without wisdom, without clear awareness of the world as it really is, can never improve anything."
The emphasis here is "clear awareness of the world as it really is."
The average person is exposed to tens of thousands of thoughts every day, and we find ourselves at the mercy of an inner narrative that comments on, labels, and judges everything (including ourselves!). Reality gets buried under all this mental noise.
Put simply: we don't see things as they are, we see things as our minds present them.
Or, as I'm fond of saying,
"There's what's happening, and there's the stories our minds tells us about what's happening - the two rarely match."
We all get lost in thoughts and swept away by emotions, and we all tend to follow our minds wherever they lead. It becomes an endless cycle, and reinforces the belief that the answers to life's problems are "do more," "try harder," "go faster." But, you can't solve the problems created by thinking with more thinking.
That's important, and bears repeating:
You can't solve the problems created by thinking with more thinking.
That's why sitting and meditating is important. You are training yourself not to get caught up in thoughts, emotions, and mind-made activity. And, when you are able to consistently move your attention away from the mental noise, you create space that allows you to see reality clearly - without the filters and constructs your mind adds to it.
This, in turn, helps you be more skillful in your behavior (decisions, actions, reactions).
Another way to say it is, moving your attention away from the mental noise is analogous to leaving muddy water alone: you are left with a clear view of reality (unclouded by thoughts you are no longer indulging), just like you are left with clear water (unclouded by the sediment that settles to the bottom).
We are continuously held hostage by the next thought that pops into our heads. We spend most of our days like this — lost in mental activity, swept away by emotions, habitually reacting to the stories our minds are forever telling us.
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