At a party several weeks ago, a friend of mine expressed her hurt and disappointment because I hadn’t found the time to get together with her during the previous six months. My extremely insensitive answer was, “Well you’re not the only one, I just canceled lunch this week with K.” Later that week, a different friend told me about calling her sister, a very important and busy doctor, and hearing a certain tone in her voice that meant “I really can’t talk to you now.” The tone was subtle, she said, but unmistakable. She felt a little sad and a little miffed that her sister’s work was more important than her call.
For many of us, this isn’t anything new. We are always trying to balance our desire to contribute to the world and make a living with our personal relationships and contemplative time. For myself, I know it’s not easy to put my activities aside and just be with people. Is it because I am on my phone or computer 24-7? Am I too busy checking items off my todo lists? Am I an introvert living in an extroverted world? Or am I simply too exhausted from my work to do anything else?
Underneath my own busyness is a false belief that I am or should be personally responsible for making the world “right.” In the past I have felt that the happiness of my children, my partner, my extended family and my friends is my responsibility. As is my own happiness, and my physical and mental health. At times I have thought that I have the power and obligation to slow or even prevent climate change, end war, and reduce the increase in childhood anxieties.
That last belief was what prompted me to start teaching kids yoga and open a yoga studio more than a decade ago. The yoga studio has has been a real benefit to our community, so it begs the question of whether my over-repsonsibility and workaholism has been a positive thing. I’d say both yes and no. I needed the spark of believing that I could do something beneficial along with the drive to do it in order to have the energy to devote to creating the studio. But without the larger view that I am not ultimately or solely responsible for saving all children from stress, I would have fallen into despair and given up.
To balance my tendency toward over-responsibility and its cousin overwork, I needed to stop super-sizing myself and see that while my work is important and I can make a difference, I can’t do it alone. And I can’t do it without connecting to myself, my loved ones, and my Buddha nature through relaxation and contemplation. Even inspiring role models who changed the world had to have down-time in order to do it. Mahatma Ghandi started every day with prayer. Martin Luther King, Jr. very often found quiet moments to reflect and pray, and even Mother Theresa did not spend every hour of her day working in the streets. She spent four hours of each day in contemplative prayer.
“THAT’S WHERE WE BEGIN THE DAY, WITH MASS. AND WE END THE DAY WITH ADORATION OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT. I DON’T THINK THAT I COULD DO THIS WORK FOR EVEN ONE WEEK IF I DIDN’T HAVE FOUR HOURS OF PRAYER EVERY DAY.” – MOTHER TERESA
Our culture doesn’t encourage us to take time for contemplation or even time to be with friends and family because we are so often focused on future goals. We regularly sacrifice the present moment for some future moment that may or may not arrive. And yet there are things that we can do to make the world a safer, healthier place. The trick is to stay awake and aware of each moment even as we progress toward larger goals. The means are the ends, or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “This is because that is.” A lot of the work I do in my life aims to reduce suffering. But if I cause my friends and family to suffer as I get there, am I really reducing suffering?
“IF WE DON’T KNOW HOW TO BREATHE, SMILE, AND LIVE EVERY MOMENT OF OUR LIFE DEEPLY, WE WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO HELP ANYONE. I AM HAPPY IN THE PRESENT MOMENT. I DO NOT ASK FOR ANYTHING ELSE. I DO NOT EXPECT ANY ADDITIONAL HAPPINESS OR CONDITIONS THAT WILL BRING ABOUT MORE HAPPINESS. THE MOST IMPORTANT PRACTICE IS AIMLESSNESS, NOT RUNNING AFTER THINGS, NOT GRASPING. WITHOUT HAPPINESS WE CANNOT BE A REFUGE FOR OTHERS.” – THICH NHAT HANH
A few weeks after I offended my friend, and after I had let go of some extraneous commitments, my daughter happened to call me from college. With a slightly less packed schedule, I was thrilled to be able to answer the phone and hear what she had to say without impatience in my voice. It felt spacious to me, and I think that she appreciated my relaxed tone as well. I’m continuing to try to leave enough space in my life for the little moments that arise spontaneously, and it feels really gratifying when I am able to do so.
I’m not implying that we all need to be available anytime any of our friends or family wants to get together or talk. But I am trying to let go of the idea that there is something more that I need to do or attain before I have time to be present for my loved ones or take a break for myself. If my deepest intention is to contribute to the world, I want to contribute in the everyday moments as well as working toward the grander purposes I have set for my life.
Perhaps the moments that seem unproductive – having lunch with a friend, picking up the phone ready to listen to a distraught daughter, or taking a walk in the sunshine – are exactly the places where we make the most difference in the world.