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Too Much to Do

“We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about.”

~Joseph Campbell

After the long road to recovery following a near-fatal car accident, I thought I would never again feel frustrated or overwhelmed. After all, I had my life – so what could possibly invade the joy and happiness of being spared death? Busyness: the constant concern and pace that comes with planning too much and expecting too much. In the midst of healing, I had begun to feel overwhelmed, frustrated with undone tasks and ashamed that I couldn’t accomplish more in a day.

As I noticed frequent headaches, tense muscles and a constant sense of urgency, I realized I needed and wanted to look more closely into what was occurring. Here is what I learned about myself that I believe can help any of you who, like me, have ever felt constant pressure and temptation to stay at task from morning to night.

Somewhere between being discharged from the final care center to recovery at home and then being able to drive a car again, I began to expect grandiose accomplishments of myself. I made lists of things to do and they became longer and more complex as my energy increased. I found myself constantly pushing the energy envelope. I became anxious, driven and unhappy.  As I did an internal inquiry as to what, exactly, was going on and where this urgency to accomplish was coming from, I realized the culprit was my own thinking: my perception, attitudes and beliefs – and how I was managing my days, my hours and my moments.

To be clear, I am not referring to full days that include employment, children, elderly parents, education, home care needs, shopping, etc.: the multitude of responsibilities that exist in our lives, needing attention and management – and, for certain, action. I am referring, instead, to an internal busyness – one that causes never-ending preoccupation with productivity and accomplishment. One that manages you. In my own life, I discovered I was addicted to – or perhaps we could say very “loyal to” – my erroneous belief that the more I accomplished, the better person I would be. While the satisfaction of completing a task or achieving a goal of some sort is healthy and normal, the constant drive to be doing something can become unhealthy and lead to physical and mental symptoms of distress and compromised health. Busyness can become a thief: robbing us of serenity, unstructured time and creativity. We can easily become slaves to this master.

Activity addiction is like any other in that as it progresses, one needs more and more accomplishment to experience the “good feelings”. More is added to the list and “yes” is said to too many commitments. On a fundamental level, being busy nourishes the ego’s need to feel important. While it is normal to be active and engaged with life, the ego’s addiction to staying busy has an element of terror at its core: who am I if I am not busy? To make matters more difficult, our culture reinforces the belief that being busy means we are productive and important. Another purpose of constant doing can be to distract – to prevent facing and accepting life as it is. Sometimes being busy and staying busy brings numbness…a sense of some sort of safety and control, as we turn away from issues or feelings that want our attention.

For some of us, busyness is an easily solved problem. We simply say yes to too many things and then find our way out. For others, myself included, the solution is bigger and more complex, leaning toward seriousness. Regardless of where we might fall on a continuum, discovering the doorway into spaciousness and into “being” rather than “doing” changes one’s life dramatically. This doesn’t mean we become lazy or irresponsible. Rather, it means we come back to ourselves and get to know the person who is “doing the doing”. We learn to be present and to prioritize our energy and commitments. We begin to feel the feelings being over-ridden with activity and look at our lives from a place of awareness and wisdom. And we care for ourselves with tenderness and compassion.

Being a yoga instructor, I turned to my mat to learn even more about internal busyness. I found two basic practices invaluable to my “recovery” from overwhelm. First, I practiced stopping several times a day to center myself and bring awareness to the breath. Stopping and breathing began to grow into a sense of spaciousness and calm. At first I set a timer…and then gradually I was able to sense when it was time to stop, breathe and allow a sense of calm to be present.

The second practice I adopted was cultivating “informal meditation”: the act of bringing mindful awareness to the moment, to each task, as we go about our day. The value in being mindful as a way of life is it allows us to do what we do with full awareness, rather than go about on automatic pilot, ending each day in a sort of mindless blur.

The authors of The Mindful Way Through Depression (Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn) suggest developing a practice of informal mindfulness in the following way: “Choose some routine activity that we do every day, and resolve that each time we do it, we will bring a fresh quality of deliberate and gentle moment-to-moment awareness to the task or activity as best we can. Bringing awareness into these activities of daily living can make it much easier for us to recognize when we are operating in the doing mode, on automatic pilot, and provides us with an instant alternative, namely, an opportunity to enter and dwell in the mode of being. In this way, we are knowing full well what we are doing while we are actually doing it.” They go on to suggest some examples of possible activities:

  • Washing the dishes
  • Loading the dishwasher
  • Taking out the garbage
  • Brushing teeth
  • Taking a shower
  • Doing the laundry
  • Driving the car
  • Leaving the house
  • Entering the house
  • Going upstairs
  • Going downstairs

You are invited to add your own chosen activities to this list, perhaps choosing one to focus on for the first week, then adding a new activity each  following week.

Close your eyes and ask yourself: “who am I when I am not doing something?” Let the breath soothe and be open to what emerges following this question. With compassion and patience, breathe and pause a bit longer. Notice what comes up for you and try not to judge anything, simply accept what is present. The person in each of us who is “not busy” lives in the space between each breath and the space between each thought. And in the space between the end of one action and the beginning of the next, we can “merge” into what some call the source of all action: the still point between the world of ending a task and the world of beginning another.

There is a natural fluidity that occurs when we can take action from the place of one who is not caught up in busyness. We become free in all of our actions because we are unaffected by the activity and its results. We are able to be an impartial witness to our actions and therefore able to be at one with a task, fully engaged, because we are free from fear of outcome. Each activity, then, becomes a life-enhancing dance between setting a goal and accomplishing a task while completely surrendering to the outcome.

As you go about your daily tasks, the secret lies in your intention to continually return to the one who is not busy and feel her steadiness, strength and calm. She is detached. She is free. You may not see her immediately, but in time, once committed to looking through activity to stillness, she will appear – becoming your teacher. And in the meantime, you just may find that your tasks become effortless and your sense of the day expansive, fluid and peaceful – full of aliveness and deep joy.

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