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The Sheer Terror of Sitting Still

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Pause and you get eaten. Introspection is for hippies. Ruthlessly forward is the only perspective, the only direction, the only proper attitude.

Self reflection and mindful presence? Calm and OM and inner stillness? Sounds adorable, but holy hell have you seen the pace of the world today? Who has the time? Who has the energy? Who has the patience?

And really, does meditation even work? All the hoopla, all the supposed health benefits, all the ancient Buddha wisdom, even modern science slowly coming around to the idea that clearing your mind and working the "attention muscle" is beneficial for reducing all sort of toxic things, like stress, anger, road rage, beating your kids, ultraconservatism, Paul Ryan.

But come on. There's so much to do! Money to make. Empires to build. Spines to slouch and hoodies to wear and souls to crush. This is America. Work is all there is. Well, work, and the Internet. And porn. And global warming. And artisan cocktails. Eat or get eaten, sucker.

"If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world in one generation." -- Dalai Lama

Wait, what? Who let that guy in here? Doesn't matter what he says; for most Americans, stillness is... how to put this honestly? Terrifying. Deep, even momentary quiet freaks people out. The hardest thing anyone can ever do in our culture is sit still for a moment. The demons! The memories! Voices! Kids! Video games! The guilt and the doubts and the FOMO, all hammering down on you like a cold rain made of fear and capitalism and shame. And it's only been... 27 seconds. Meditation is hard.

We are addicted! White noise and activity filler and lists. Do you know how many apps there are for making to-do lists, setting alarms, organizing schedules, keeping track of appointments and tasks and urgent needs? I don't know, either; I'm far too busy writing this blog to count them all. Do you know how many there are for meditation and relaxation? Five.

I'm kidding. There are probably more. I haven't actually looked. Too busy, and it's not on my list. But I do know they don't stand a chance against the many hundreds designed to keep you busy or lovingly distract you (like mine) or help you get more stuff done, even though you can never get everything done, because as soon as you polish off your list for the day it's hey, look! Five hundred more things to do tomorrow! And then you die.

I recently read a profile in Men's Journal of Gordon Ramsey, rock star chef, empire builder, relentless curser, infamous hothead, wildly successful businessman, total madman. Ramsay has 27 restaurants all over the world. He has multiple hit TV shows (Hell's Kitchen, Master Chef, etc). Books and columns and product lines and his own TV production company. Netted something like $38 million last year alone.

Not enough? Ramsay also races Ferraris. He regularly runs ultra-marathons. He is training for the Iron Man in Hawaii. He has four seemingly happy kids and a pretty wife and a giant house or 10. He is roughly my age.

This is, I hereby admit, staggering to me. Despite all my yoga training and my understanding of deeper meanings and personal paths, I can still get caught up. I still compare. I read about a rabid and cartoonish megasuperachiever like this and I find I cannot, do not relate in the slightest.

What sort of life is this? I cannot comprehend such output, the exhaustion and the staggering pace, the adrenaline addiction, the constant empty striving to prove something to someone (in Ramsay's case, his late father, who was a complete monster, violent and abusive, an alcoholic, a total failure. All of which Ramsay has vowed never to be, no matter what and to the extreme).

Is that the answer? The reason? Because I lack Ramsay's brutal motivational demons, his father's hateful words stabbing at his subconscious at every turn, I therefore feel less compulsion to achieve a titanic amount of success I can never possibly appreciate anyway?

Maybe. Even so, I can get caught up. In the fantasy. In the spin. There is much desirable fluff for the ego to envy in Ramsay's madman drive, much to wonder about and say, "Oh my God, I'm not doing nearly enough with my time. Not producing enough, creating enough, churning and manipulating and strive strive strive." Hell, most days it's all I can do to manage a single girlfriend, my yoga classes and workshops, a handful of writing projects, one apartment and a new iPhone app. Twenty-seven restaurants and five TV shows and four kids? What are you, high?

One telling note about Ramsay. He can't slow down. Doesn't know how. Fully admits that sitting still, contemplating anything at any depth or length terrifies him. An intimate awareness of the deep, messy bliss of existence? Authentic human connection? Not a chance. "I'm scared of standing still," he says. "I sh-t myself. I need to move." Gotta go. Gotta fight, conquer, own, achieve. And of course, it is never enough. The void is never filled, the hungry ghost is never sated, the itch never fully scratched.

And how can it be? If there's one thing we know, it's that true fulfillment never comes from financial or material success. Happiness and deep sense of connection have nothing to do with money or fame or material wealth, a truism constantly reinforced by deeper common sense (and the occasional ultra-inspiring true-life confession) but rarely trusted by the ego. Besides, say what you will about the spiritual vacuity of sex and drugs and cash and toys; they sure are damn fun to have along the way.

The thing is, the scientific studies, the articles I read about meditation...

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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate, and the creator of the new Mark Morford's Apothecary iOS app. He's also a well-known ERYT yoga instructor in San Francisco. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...