Recently I’ve been working with certain perennial questions. You know, those questions that come up again and again in life, ones that seem like they need to be answered anew each time they’re encountered. For me, the themes of opportunity, commitment (and overcommitment) and busyness have been coming up consistently in the past couple of months, and have been ones that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around.
These themes are both timeless and timely, ones that have always been faced by people, but which feel particularly pertinent to me in a world where there are so many ways to be involved and active, a world which to me calls for participation in a way that is, I think, unprecedented. This engagement and involvement, whether it be with good works, positive communities, friends and family, cultural conversations or whatever it might be, has for me been something I want to come from a place of joy, a desire to have a rich life both internally and externally, and an intention contribute to the happiness of myself and others. But feeling the weight of being involved in so many things, having persistent feelings of busyness, has left me with a sentiment: There’s only so much awesome I can handle.
In the past months, I’ve found that the commitments involved in all these ways that I want to engage in the world have left me in a frazzled state, constantly moving from one place to another, with a schedule that’s often booked for all my waking hours almost every day of the week to the point that when I get some unstructured time, I mostly want to hibernate and tone down my activities to an extreme degree.
It’s also left me in a state where these activities that I want to be part of, the “awesome”, can be hard to engage in with the intention I want to bring to them. As opposed to doing something with enjoyment, experiences of anxiety, burdensomeness or frustration can come to characterize engagement with these activities when I’m actually in the moment. Obviously, when one decides to do something so that it will have some positive effect and comes from a positive place, but in process of actually doing so finds oneself in a negative state like one of those described above, something is clearly off. This is what I call the conundrum of the awesome: Once you have too much of it, the awesome starts to turn to shit. It is like an inverted swords to plowshares, whereby things undertaken to benefit others or oneself can turn into things that do harm oneself or others.
And so I’ve been using my awareness of this experience as a practice, as a way to explore this conundrum and hopefully figure out ways to either modulate it or even turn it on its head. The two practices that I’ve be playing with are in many ways no brainers, but at the same time I think if they’re applied can make big differences. Both of them, though, come back to these core ideas of awareness and intention, which in my eyes are the most powerful forces that can shape the human condition.
The first place I’ve been practicing is with the experience of opportunity. Opportunity manifests constantly, sometimes in large ways but more often in small. It can be as big as taking a new job, applying for that large grant, deciding to go back to school, trying to seal that business deal of a lifetime. But it’s more likely that it looks like an invitation to dinner, a decision to go to a conference or take a week to travel, to attend a meeting that might be interesting or serve on some sort of committee. Often adding up these small things is what amounts to these feelings of being overburdened and over committed.
And so in discussing this with one of my wonderful teachers, I was advised to pay close attention to the decision points when we say yes or no to these opportunities. When I receive that email to go to a show with a group of friends, to notice the reaction. Is it that big yes? That one that says, “my god, I haven’t seen that person in ages, I love that person, and really want to spend time with them!” Or is it something else? Some hesitance or reticence, maybe it’s a smaller yes, like “sure, that sounds fine.”
When I pay attention and listen for that big yes, it’s a great way to make decisions to take on these opportunities and to make these commitments, and when I hear that smaller yes, it’s a good indicator that maybe that time might be better spent otherwise (relaxing, perhaps, or taking the night to just cook dinner for myself or read a book). I’ve often found that I have a tendency to say yes when almost any opportunity arises, for any number of reasons. It might be fear of missing out on something, or wanting to not disappoint someone, or whatever it might be. But if that reason isn’t examined, at least for a moment, it can land us in these places where we’d rather not be. So, before committing to these, I’ve been listening for this “big yes”.
The second area that I’ve been practicing with in regards to the conundrum of the awesome is in relation to commitments I’ve already made. Mainly, I’ve been examining how I relate to those commitments when I’m in the midst of them. As mentioned earlier, sometimes when I’m engaging in an activity that I committed to from a positive place, a sense of anxiety or frustration can often insert itself into experience as opposed to one of joy. Mostly I think that this happens when I think of all the various things I need to do, rather than focusing on the thing that I might be doing in a given moment. And so I’ve been trying to change my relationship to what I’m doing in that moment, really giving it my full attention, and keeping in mind what my intention is in relation to the activity.
There are two strategies I’ve been working with here. The first is creating conditions that will allow me to pay more attention to what I’m doing by designing pauses into my day. In this, I came across a wonderful tool via my boss Barry, a neat little tool called Time Out. Time Out is a computer program that lets you set breaks into your day in various intervals. For example, I set the program to kick in once every fifteen minutes, at which point the screen on my computer fades out for 30 seconds. (See above). At each break, it allows me the opportunity to connect with what I’m doing by ceasing to do it. It gives me the space to ask the question: am I actually paying attention to what I’m doing? I’ve been using it for a number of weeks now at work, and am finding that it really changes the way my day feels.
The second strategy I’ve been employing is something I call “metta-tasking”. Metta is the Pali word for lovingkindness or friendliness, and is the name of a meditation practice in the Buddhist tradition in which one works actively to increase attitudes of kindness and goodwill towards others. I figured that since most of the big decisions and activities in my life have been geared towards the ends of being kind to either myself or others, that this is an intention that can be brought to bear within the smallest tasks that make up those larger activities or decisions. So when I’m writing that random email or putting together a piece of curriculum, I’ve been doing my best to bring this intention of kindness, which should be underpinning the activity in the first place, more actively to the forefront of my experience. Doing so (when I can remember to) has dramatically changed the way I feel while I get done the things that I’ve committed to getting done, and means that instead of doing things from a place of anxiety, tension or frustration, I’m doing things from the place in my heart that actually allows me to enjoy what I’m doing and have a sense of lightness, no matter how big the to-do list might be that day.
So in answering these questions and grappling with these experiences, I also recognize the fact that not only does everyone have to answer them in their own way, but that even if something is working for me now it doesn’t mean that it’ll work for me down the line as things change. As that happens, these perennial questions will have to be answered again. If you have any strategies that you’ve developed yourself or come across to deal with these big questions of commitment, opportunity and busyness, I’d love to hear them. And, of course, feel free to steal any of the ones I talked about here.