My candle burns at both ends/It will not last the night
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—it gives a lovely light.
~ Edna St. Vincent Millay
It’s not that I have to work all the time; it’s just that, wherever I go, people pay me to stay.
~ Angela Raines
I’ve conducted a little experiment over the last few months. I’ve worked close to 80 hours per week, spread scandalously thin between four different jobs. I’m not usually one for such masochistic overwhelm (OK—not always), but each job has played a particular role in my new life here in Boulder. One’s an unpaid, thrilling learning opportunity; one’s highly paid with the unhealthiest of hours and accompanying lifestyle; one has mediocre pay but great benefits and coworkers; and one has dream career potential but currently offers very few hours.
The sheer busyness that’s ensued has been a greater challenge than any one of the jobs. Everyday, I work two or three of my jobs. I have to make sure to get some work done before going to work because after work, I have to work. My mind’s had to upgrade to a new operating system that somehow keeps track of four new sets of work expectations and instructions, four new sets of coworkers, and countless assignments, appointments, and responsibilities. I’ve tried to balance the stress of being “the new girl” everywhere by keeping an open heart, a cheerful disposition, and simply working damn hard. (I’ve also taken to explaining to people that, no, it’s not that I have to work all the time; it’s just that, wherever I go, people pay me to stay.)
Believe it or not, though, I didn’t move to Boulder just to work. I came here, like so many do, to connect to other people dedicated to their spiritual and personal growth. I came here to bike, do yoga, laugh with friends, and sit. Yes, to sit. Just sitting, or zazen (Zen meditation) has been massively rewarding and transformative for me (my teacher being the Ultimate Zen Bad-Ass doesn’t hurt). I wanted to cultivate a lifestyle that facilitated more of this. So yeah—I came to Boulder with hopes of staring at the floor several hours a day.
Back when I only had one job, I used to silently scoff at people who claimed they “wanted to meditate—but just can’t find the time!” Puh-leeze, I thought, as I tried to “be compassionate.” Find the time! Suck it up and do it!
Two months into my healthy-lifestyle-meditating-and-yoga’ing-like-a-boss Boulder experiment, I’ve stopped such scoffing. I found myself living on leftover scones from my café job, barely meditating twice a week. “I’m mindful, though!” I rationalized desperately. “I’m so busy that it forces me to be mindful all the time, just to keep up!” But my heart was slowly sinking as I longed for that dedication to practice that I’d uprooted my life to cultivate. While everything around me was vibrant and rich, my busyness made it seem I was only skimming the surface. Most of all, I was simply exhausted.
And then something happened. This week I read a vintage Elephant article by Reggie Ray, a stream-of-consciousness piece with such lucidity and power, it cut through my busyness and shook me awake. It spoke directly to my situation, and reframed it for good. Here are some key points:
1. Busy-ness is laziness.
…by keeping your mind occupied constantly you are actually not giving yourself a chance […]Busy-ness in the Tibetan tradition is considered the most extreme form of laziness. Because when you are busy you can turn your brain off. You’re on the treadmill. The only intelligence comes in the morning when you make your To Do list and you get rid of all the possible space that could happen in your day. There is intelligence in that: I fill up all the space so I don’t have to actually relate to myself! Once you have made that list, it’s over.
Reggie, you’ve caught me red-handed. Here I’ve been convincing myself that by working so hard, I’ve been attentive to a myriad of things. Yet I must admit how easy it is to go on autopilot for hours (if not days) at a time.
2. It’s not just about you
I don’t care if you have four children and three jobs—we have one human life. And if you can’t make the time, 15 minutes to relate to yourself, everyone else in your life is going to suffer. You have to realize that you are harming other people by making up excuses and not working on yourself. This is serious.
I know that when I’m fully present and on my game, I can bring intelligence and love to the people and situations in my life; it’s when I’m absent-minded, tired, or neglecting myself that I create suffering around me. Attending to our personal wellbeing is actually a grave responsibility, as it deeply affects everyone around us.
3. Did I mention this is important?
If your mind is always busy then you have no sense of the world you live in […] there is no space within which to see what you are doing. We will end up destroying our lives, and you may not realize what you have given up until you are on your deathbed. By being busy you are basically giving away your human existence.
4. OK, so… when?
It’s all so simple, and I’m sure I’ve heard these things many times. But for some reason, this talk got through to me. I was inspired. I decided that, in fact, I deserve the time to practice, that it’s the deepest form I know of respecting and loving myself. More than that, I want the people around me to be uplifted by my presence, not bogged down by my contagious chaos. Zen: it’s practicing being present.
I’m profoundly grateful for this post from Reggie Ray, a teacher I’ve never met but who’s now touched my life. I have taken his invitation to put practice at the top of my list; yet somehow, this isn’t just another item to tick off an endless agenda. It’s what centers my mind amidst hectic currents; it’s what undoes my enmeshment in the world, thus (paradoxically) bringing me more fully into every moment. And prioritizing this practice feels like the most naked, courageous, loving act of self-respect I can fathom.
I’d like to extend Dr. Ray’s invitation to you. Perhaps your practice isn’t zazen, but yoga, mindful strength training, or creative writing. Whatever it is, take a moment to appreciate how deeply you and those around you are impacted when you take the time to nurture yourself in this way. You will soon be dead. Doesn’t the world deserve you at your fullest, before then? Don’t you?
As for me, I’m four days deep into a radical recommitment to practice, and it feels tremendous. My jobs? They’re all still going strong. But now, I’m going even stronger.