Down the toilet
“When passing excrement or urinating, he applies full awareness to this.” — Buddha
When it comes to realizing nirvana, the Buddha’s advice is fairly straightforward:
When you’re sitting, be aware. When you’re standing, be aware. When you’re walking, be aware.
Basically, just practice being aware in everything you do.
That’s the gist of The Four Establishments of Mindfulness, a recipe to “realize purification, overcome grief and sorrow, end pain and anxiety, travel the right path, and realize nirvana.”
When reading this passage in Brother Phap Hai’s book, I was amused how the Buddha specifically called out being aware when “passing excrement or urinating.”
Evidently multitasking while pooping didn’t start with the iPhone.
So what was on people minds during their morning constitutional during the time of the Buddha? That made me curious. I had to Google the question “how did people poop in Buddha’s time.”
What I learned is that there wasn’t really privacy back then. Going to the bathroom, as we euphemistically call it now, was an outdoor communal affair.
Big cities in India in 2000 BC had actual public toilets and sewage systems, as seen below. This clearly violated the every-other-urinal rule.
In rural areas, you got even more up close and personal. They had a rotating plot of land provided by farmers where villagers gathered and pooped.
Nothing like greeting your neighbors in the morning with a steaming pile of your own poop.
According to an article in Scientific American, an ancient Buddhist text instructs monks “to cough loudly on arrival at the latrine in case it is already occupied.”
Long before we had stalls and bathroom doors, having someone walk in on you mid-poop might be causing anxiety and tension.
To this, the Buddha said, in effect, shit or get off the pot. Just worry about doing your business. Stop thinking about other thoughts.
Today the main distraction when we’re in the bathroom isn’t other people, it’s ourselves.
In 2012, a full 75% of Americans admitted to using their phone while on the toilet. Nearly a fifth owned up to dropping their phones in the toilet, according to CNET. Nearly a third of men and 20 percent of women won’t even go to the lavatory without one. As a result, the University of London found 1 in 6 phones to have “fecal matter bacteria” on them.
I’m guessing both those figures have only grown since then.
For some perspective, search iphone + toilet on Twitter. Or better yet, don’t.
But I think the Buddha has a point that’s relevant to our modern times. Every time we use our phones when we’re bored, we’re training our brains to be distracted.
Cal Newport also warns against this in Deep Work. I first heard Newport on Srinivas Rao’s UnmistakableCreative podcast. He struck me as an interesting character — maybe a little curmudgeonly, but undeniably smart.
He really caught my attention when he talked about the damage you inflict while checking your phone in line at the grocery store.
He said even a quick check while you’re bored trains your brain to seek distraction and stimuli at all times. So then when you do have to buckle down on something hard and not particularly appealing, your brain wants to bolt to something entertaining and can’t sustain focus.
That blew my mind. I ALWAYS check my phone while waiting in a line, stopped at a red light, walking down the hallway, etc. Doesn’t everyone? I thought I was being productive in my job as social media director, if a little OCD. But Newport’s book completely changed my view about the negative trade-offs of that type of connectivity.
But this is not new. We’ve been distracting ourselves on the commode for at least 2,600 years, long before bathroom readers and technology. I find that oddly reassuring.
We have control. And we don’t need to flush our attention down the toilet