Apr 19, 2010
Mindfully navigating through overwhelm
I have to confess, I’m a busy-holic. I’m often balancing at the knife-edge of being TOO busy. But everything I do is important to me, and I don’t want to give anything up. Recently, I started taking a different perspective, which is really helping me cut through the crap. Here’s what I’m doing differently.
There’s always something I want to do. I’m not only self-employed, I love my work and I’m eager to keep learning and growing personally and professionally. I’m constantly doing things with and for my Buddhist sangha. And I sing with my a cappella group, the Silk Tones. My calendar is always very full.
I know many of us feel oppressed by all the things we have on our plates … slowing down doesn’t seem like a viable option for many of us.
Yes, I’m happy with everything I do, but the sword cuts two ways. And recently I’ve gotten TOO busy. I knew I was in trouble when I was starting to lose the pleasure in singing. I found myself squeezing in my practice times at night when I was really too tired, and cramming music into my head just to get the damned thing memorized and done with. A lot of things were starting to feel dry and lifeless. I was starting to feel like that hamster on a wheel – churning from one thing on my to-do list to the next.
I bet you can relate. I know many of us feel oppressed at times by all the things we have on our plates. Maybe you don’t see a whole lot of choice. Maybe you need to work full time to earn a living to support your family, and maybe you have aging parents to care for, too. Whatever your circumstances, slowing down doesn’t seem like a viable option for many of us.
I stopped thinking of time as a scarce resource that there’s never enough of. Instead, I started seeing it as a vehicle for expressing myself in the world.
Knowing that feeling overwhelmed is a state of mind, I kept going back to that classic verse from the Dhammapada:
“Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows even as the cartwheel follows the hoof of the ox … If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.”
I knew it was me that had created my own unsatisfactory situation, so what could I do to change it? If I’m not willing to cut back, then how could I take the negativity out of the picture? What might a pure mind look like?
Here’s the key thing I’ve started doing differently. I shifted my perspective. I stopped thinking of time as a scarce resource that there’s never enough of — which kept me trapped in a “never enough” state of mind. Instead, I started seeing it as vehicle for expressing myself in the world. It’s my way of giving the best of myself. How I spend my time tells the world who I am and what I think is valuable. It’s not an easy shift, but it’s starting to bring more spaciousness into my days. And that’s priceless.
Every Monday morning, I now set aside about 30 minutes with a blank sheet of paper, away from my computer and “stuff,” to get a big picture view of what I’d like my week to look like.
In practical terms, this is what I do differently. Every Monday morning, I now set aside about 30 minutes with a blank sheet of paper, away from my computer and “stuff,” to get a big picture view of what I’d like my week to look like. How can I use my time this week to reflect the kind of person I want to be?
My focus isn’t on what needs to get done, but on ME, and what it would feel like to take my stand about what’s important to me this week. That includes taking good care of myself. Thinking this way obviously doesn’t do anything toward getting through my list faster. And that’s probably a good thing. Instead, it forces me to take a hard look at my priorities. If I spend my whole week on “stuff I should do,” I’m telling the world that I’m OK with letting others tell me what to do. Well, that’s not OK by me anymore!
Once I have that perspective in mind, then I go into the explicit list-making and prioritizing of my to-do list. Starting this way helps me to go about it with more clarity and sense of purpose. It keeps me more grounded and present, less likely to fly off into a race to get to the next thing. I’m also finding that I don’t cram as much in. Instead, I feel satisfied with an intuitive sense of what’s “enough” for each day and week, because it’s not about reaching for some elusive time when everything gets done (which of course never happens). It’s really about finding intrinsic satisfaction in everything I do.
Starting this way helps me to go about it with more clarity and sense of purpose. It keeps me more grounded and present, less likely to fly off into a race to get to the next thing.
Don’t get me wrong. We all have things we gotta do that we really don’t want to. I’m not saying we should chuck them out the window. What I mean is that everything we do is ultimately our own choice. I don’t particularly enjoy housecleaning, for example, but it’s still my choice to do it. It’s important to me to live in a clean, clutter-free, aesthetically pleasing home because it helps keep my mind in a similar state. So rather than resenting having to clean and getting through it as fast as possible, I do it while being mindful that I DO feel better when the kitchen counters are spotless. And I stay mindfully present and appreciate that feeling while I clean.
During the week as I work my way through the list, I try not to think in terms of “getting things done.” True, it’s unavoidable to some extent. But I try to stay mindful of why I chose to do each thing, and why it’s important to me. I end up doing things with more enjoyment and care. It takes the harried feeling out of the day. And when those inevitable interruptions and disasters happen, well, I’m still in touch with my larger intentions and can make a thoughtful choice on the spot. It’s like an improvisation. The interruption can become a part of my intentions. Or not, if it doesn’t fit. It’s my choice.
Sure, there are still times when I end up feeling a bit overwhelmed. After all, I did say I’m a busy-holic with a perpetually full calendar. But at least I recognize more quickly when things are out of balance, and then take time out to rejuggle things. I’ve also noticed that by being more present to what I’m doing (and not in a tight, self-referential, and task-focused state of mind) it leaves room for other unexpected possibilities to open up. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how often a possible solution to an intractable problem suddenly comes out of nowhere. I’ve lost count of how many times a chance meeting with someone points me to exactly what I need, for example.
I’m aware that some of you might be in situations that feel impossibly busy and unsustainable. Maybe following this approach just doesn’t cut it. Even so, I really do think the Buddha was right — we do create our worlds with our thoughts. We really do have a choice. Do you really HAVE TO do all the things you say you do? Do you really want to keep telling the world that everyone else’s demands are more important than your own well-being?
I urge you to take a more thoughtful stand and tell the world who you really are. I think you might be pleasantly surprised by what happens.