busyness

Mindfully navigating through overwhelm

to-do list

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.

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.

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.

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.

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George Bernard Shaw: “A life spent in making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

george bernard shaw

Are you addicted to busyness? Do you have a sense that your life could hold more meaning? Bodhipaksa discusses George Bernard Shaw’s provocative quotation, and draws out some important lessons about how taking the risk of going deeper into our experience leads to greater fulfillment.

A classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, and yet our lives are often characterized by repeated actions that cause us suffering and bring suffering to others as well. We get stuck in patterns of behavior that are destructive, or at least unhelpful or unfulfilling.

For example, I often find myself at the end of the day, after my parental duties are over with the baby tucked up in bed and my work filed away, surfing the web, reading the news. It seems like a harmless enough activity; after all, many people make more questionable use of the internet. But so often there’s a sense of restless compulsion to my endless browsing, as if I’m looking for something that will bring a sense of satisfaction. And no matter how many op ed articles, news reports, or blogs I dip into, no matter how late I stay up, that sense of satisfaction doesn’t come. And the reason it doesn’t come is because I’m looking in the wrong place: outside of myself. The satisfaction I’m looking for arises — I realize in my more mindful moments — by breaking out of the cycle of compulsive seeking and instead connecting with myself, going deeper into my experience.

When I turn my attention from the stimulation that I am craving to the experience of craving itself — when I turn my awareness to the sense of longing, to the feelings in my gut, to the underlying sense of dis-ease that I feel — I start to regain a sense of completeness once again. And if I start to reflect on my day, on what I’ve accomplished, on what I’ve learned, on the little things that I can now appreciate more fully, I begin to experience a positive sense of wellbeing.

So much of the time what we need to do is to stop doing and just experience ourselves. But this sounds, perhaps, paradoxical. After all, didn’t Shaw just disparage “doing nothing”? The problem is that we can’t take that phrase too literally. When Shaw talks about doing nothing he doesn’t literally mean that we’re disengaged from any activity whatsoever. We can never really do nothing. Even when we’re vegging out watching TV we’re still breathing and metabolizing and processing sound and images in the brain. What he means is that in our lives we can end up doing nothing of any consequence, doing nothing creative, nothing that leads to us being better, happier, wiser, more compassionate people, or to the world being a better place.

It’s perfectly possible in fact for us to “do nothing” and yet be intensely busy. The 11th to 12th century Tibetan teacher and founder of Kagyu Buddhism, Gampopa, talked about three kinds of laziness. The worst kind of laziness — gross laziness — involves “being attached to non-virtues such as destroying enemies and accumulating wealth.” To put this in more contemporary language we’re grossly lazy when we expend all our energy in pursuing status and materialism. Status and material wealth are inherently unstable things. “Past performance is no guide to the future,” as they say. “The value of your investments may go down as well as up.” So what happens when we’ve invested our sense of well-being in status and material possessions and something happens that sweeps these things out from under us? How are we then? That’s when we find out what lies deeper.

And just as for Shaw, doing nothing is not “doing nothing,” so making mistakes is not simply “making mistakes.” He’s pointing here to a life of creative experimentation in which we strive to find true meaning and to make something of our lives that’s more than just the “gross laziness” of climbing the career ladder and gathering a pretty collection of consumer goods. He means that it’s honorable to spend our lives engaged in a search for what is truly meaningful, to live an examined life, to see life as a creative endeavor with ourselves as the raw material for the creative process.

Such a life inevitably involves making mistakes, but the only way to create is to make an effort, fail, and learn from those failures. Many of us, when we first try learning meditation, inevitably bring along a consumerist mentality as we look for a quick fix. In the modern mind it seems there is no problem that we can’t buy our way out of or pay someone to fix for us. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because we all come to meditation with mixed motives and because meditation can help to broaden those motives as the doors of perception are opened.

But we come, sit awkwardly on the floor, and then discover that our minds are chaotic, unruly, full of unwanted thoughts and stray images. We may come back for the full four or six weeks of the course, but often we haven’t found the fix they’re looking for. We may decide that we have “failed” or that the technique has “failed” us, and so off we go looking for a better, quicker, easier tool to sort out the stress and lack of meaning in our lives. It doesn’t always work out like that, of course, and some, realizing that they have encountered a goldmine, begin furiously to dig. But many simply give up.

If babies were like adults none of us would be walking now. We’d have tried walking, fallen over, and then decided that walking isn’t for us. We’d have decided that crawling’s not so bad after all: “I’m just not the walking type.” “Walking? I tried that once but it didn’t work out. I’m into rolling now.” Fortunately children haven’t yet internalized our mental frameworks and so they pick themselves up after a fall and joyfully throw themselves forwards, falling again and again until finally they crack the mystery of moving forwards while remaining upright.

That’s how we need to approach meditation, and life generally — with a steady determination to live life better than we have done in the past, with faith that this is possible, and with the attitude that falling (or failing) is an inevitable part of the learning process.

Those who adopt this attitude not only live “honorable” lives but are frequently very “useful” people. Those who are determined to succeed frequently do so in spectacular fashion, and they are often highly effective individuals, shaping not only themselves but the world they live in, and leaving a legacy that gives them something approaching the immortality that Shaw himself has found. This kind of life requires that we always be prepared to “go deeper,” seeking self-knowledge and a more satisfying way of being, seeking the sanity of a life that doesn’t repeat the same mistakes over and over but instead seeks to learn from each and every experience.

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