So Much To Do, So Little Time!

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We had a lively Wise Action discussion prompted by a question posed by one of the students which boils down to: How do I make time for everything I want to do in life?

We are a group of women of a certain age, who, having led busy lives between work and family, are now, for the most part, at a time in our lives when we are able to choose the things we really want to do. Most of us have a lighter load of the things we feel we have to do, thanks to retirement, an empty nest, husbands taking on a greater role around the house, etc. Of course, some of us have more responsibilities, taking care of loved ones who are ill, reaching out into the community, etc. But in general, we feel more empowered to choose our actions and activities.

Perhaps because women are inherently multi-taskers (to keep the toddler from drowning in the river while we gather berries and firewood), we often find that our thoughts during any activity include a little anxiety about something else we should be doing instead. This keeps us from being fully present in the moment to enjoy what we are doing and to do it well.

One way to bring full mindfulness to every activity is to organize our day as if we were on retreat. Vipassana meditation retreats are quite structured, which we might think would create limitations, but actually creates freedom. When it is time to sit, we simply sit, and don’t feel we should be elsewhere. Likewise, when we are doing a walking meditation, eating a meal, or resting.

Part of every retreat day is a designated period where we do our yogi job. This is a voluntary chore of cleaning or food preparation that helps keep the retreat running smoothly. During that period we do our work mindfully, noticing the arising of misguided motivations (‘This will be the cleanest shower anyone’s ever seen! I’ll be the best yogi ever!’ or ‘Why on earth did I pick this yogi job? I bet sweeping the terrace would be a lot better.’) We might notice unskillful effort: striving too hard with our thoughts only on the goal instead of living the activity; or sloughing off, doing the least we can ‘get away with.’

This sense of a yogi job, that we do to the best of our ability with mindfulness and wise effort for a set amount of time during the day, works very well for doing household chores, bookkeeping and errands. Without that boundary-setting of a limited time frame, we have a running To Do list in our heads that keeps us on a never ending treadmill of feeling we are not doing enough, when we may very well be doing too much.

One thing that several students and I found was that email and online activity gobbles up time in a way that is quite unnerving. I liken my circling round to check email as having the same addictive quality I have felt at times in my life when I have mindlessly circled round to the refrigerator. If it feels like an addiction, then we can either go cold turkey by not having this technology at all, or we can set limits.

Limits might be as simple as using a timer. Make a note of what we originally wanted to accomplish on the computer/smart phone beforehand, then do that first before opening email and getting off track. This sounds easier than it is in practice, but I am setting the challenge for myself to see if it can be done.

A Surfeit of Options
One student said she imagined that at this time of life she would have SO much time and yet she sees that she doesn’t, that she has to pick the top three or four things she wants to do and let go of the rest.

When it comes to the surfeit of options we are so fortunate to have, we all expressed our great gratitude for the wondrous opportunities, but having stuff doesn’t create wisdom, so we can still be incredibly unskillful and cause ourselves suffering. How do we make wise choices?

How can we determine what we can let go of? What is beneficial and what is just filling time, or dragging us down? Try this exercise:

Bring to mind something you do during an average day or week.
Now ask the following questions:

– What is my intention with this action?
If you feel motivated by having something to prove rather than something to give, then this isn’t Wise Action. Remember Wise Intention is to be fully present with lovingkindness.

– Who am I doing this for?
Sometimes we get our signals crossed. We think we are doing something someone we love wants us to do. But our assumptions are not based in fact. Time to have a conversation!
– What benefits come from this action?
Make a list. and then ask:
– Is this true?
This is where the rich exploration really begins. When we question our assumptions we breathe new life into our actions.
– When I think about this action, what do I feel in my body?
If a lightness, a sense of enlivening, then I know that this action is nourishing me and no more needs to be explored. I have my answer. This action stays!

If there are any sensations of tightening, deadening, pressure, heaviness or dread, then ask:
– What are the thoughts that prompt these feelings?
– What are the fears I have about this activity?

Within each exploration, every time you make a statement, ask again, ‘Is this true?’
The result is an inner dialogue that effectively determines the value of the action. Then you can decide whether the activity is a valuable part of your life, or discover perhaps that you were doing it for the wrong reasons, or it no longer fits, etc. You can make adjustments to the activity, instilling it with Wise Intention and Wise Effort, or you can let that activity go.

– Is this my job to do, or is there someone else who could do it?
Sometimes we forget that there are other people in the world who might enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to do what it is we are doing. If we are able to hire someone to do a chore we find tiresome, certainly we are contributing to the economic well being of our community by doing so. If this is not financially feasible, hire yourself! What payment would you like? Equal time with a good book? A day at the beach? A walk with a friend? It’s yours!

If you find through this exploration that any of your activities are not Wise Action, then the wise course of action is to make a change in as mindful and compassionate a way as possible.

11/12/13 P.S. I just received a link to a post on TinyBuddha that totally fits into this discussion and offers more valuable questions we can ask ourselves when we are looking at all we have to do.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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