I have a confession: I am really bad at vacation. More to the point, I am really bad at doing nothing. When I say doing nothing, I don't mean not having an activity or a plan, at that I am quite skilled. Rather, the doing nothing that is so hard is that of not being engaged in some kind of purposeful endeavor: creating, learning, developing, figuring out, etc.
On a positive note, being really bad at doing nothing has served me well in life. While I am curious and energetic by nature, still, the anxiety that accompanies not being engaged in something has contributed immensely to my productivity. Not being able to do nothing has condemned me to a fate of continual learning, creating, and ultimately, accomplishing. You could say that not being able to do nothing has made me quite an achiever.
While it feels good to be productive, it doesn't feel good to not know how to NOT be productive. Being disengaged can feel like a death sentence, and yet, it is a part of life. We cannot be engaged all the time; we cannot outrun downtime. Knowing that there is a part of life that I'm really bad at, that feels like a death sentence, has always loomed menacingly in the background of my consciousness. It moved to the foreground this last week on the yearly family beach holiday. While reading, dialogue and just plain thinking are always available, for the most part family beach vacations are a time when we are purposefully not engaging our minds, but rather hanging out doing a whole lot of nothing (unless you consider sipping frozen drinks a something). We are on holiday, to some degree, with the precise intention of disengaging our minds. What to do then when your mind doesn't disengage but there is nowhere to put it. Here in lies the problem.
For years I have berated myself for having such a hard time on vacation, and felt disappointed in the fact that for the first five days of holiday I feel like a trapped animal pacing the bars of a too small cage. Why is it so hard for me to relax and do nothing, create nothing, think about nothing, just be here in the nothingness? I have asked myself this question on innumerable occasions (in a not very compassionate tone). Why must I always have a bone for my mind to chew on? After all these years of spiritual practice and meditation, am I really just as unable to sit still in the open, undirected space, to be awareness without an object of that awareness?
And then something amazing happened on this holiday. It seems that all the years of spiritual practice kind of kicked in. What changed wasn't so much "me" or "my" experience of doing nothing, but rather my relationship with that "me" and "my" experience. On the third day of this year's beach holiday I woke up edgy and uncomfortable, the way I usually do on vacation, but with the profound realization that this is the way I experience beach holidays. I do feel caged in and claustrophobic with an underlying get-me-out-of-here anxiety -- at least for the first four or five days, just in time to enjoy one or two days and then go home again. I woke up that third morning to the realization that this simply is -- the way I'm wired. My experience is not supposed to be another way, better or more peaceful. I am not supposed to be another way. To know this was so simple, but oh so life changing!
What changed on this holiday was not how I experience vacation but my struggle against that experience. Instead of trying to will or berate myself into enjoying the holiday, I started observing myself as that edgy trapped animal. So too, I started compassionately allowing myself the right to do whatever I needed to do to feel less trapped. I gave myself more time to run and get out some of the purely physical energy that doing nothing was generating. While I had always offered myself this in the past, I now gave it to myself without guilt or remorse, as one would offer insulin to a diabetic. I, the larger awareness, could then be okay while my mind frantically burned, struggling against having nothing to sink its teeth into.
It is not so much the difficulty that we experience that causes the worst pain but rather, the way we struggle against that difficulty, as if we are not supposed to have it. Finally, after many years of vacationing in agitation, I let go of this belief, that it could be any other way, and that I could or should be someone who can transition out of her engaged life at home and immediately start enjoying nothingness, simply because it's warm, I'm with family, and most of all, it's vacation -- the very time I am supposed to be having fun. Finally, I welcomed the mind that actually lives in this body, the one that doesn't enjoy the first few days of really... anything. With this acceptance, I became kind of okay.
When I stopped judging myself for the experience I was having, stopped hating myself for hating vacation, I discovered two wonderful things: humor and compassion. Humor, in that I could suddenly laugh at my persistent irritation and overwhelming restlessness, and my complete inability to land in the loveliest of places. And, that after all the effort that it took to get there, all the waiting for it come, all the counting down of the days, the truth is I really wanted to be anywhere else. Compassion, in that I could feel loving kindness toward my own mind, my own self. I certainly don't want this to be the way that I experience holidays, and yet -- it is. At last, I could laugh and empathize with my own uncomfortable nature, a part I had long rejected. What a different place I had discovered simply as a result of dropping the fight against what is happening. We believe that suffering will end when we remove the experiences that are difficult and unlikable. That would certainly makes sense. But the truth is counterintuitive. We remove the primary cause of suffering when we stop criticizing and trying to change our experience as it actually is. We find equanimity when we surrender to the chaos. We find peace and self-love when we agree to meet and welcome the parts of ourselves that we enjoy and even more importantly, the parts we don't.