April 22, 2016

How I Made Peace With My To-Do List.

to do list

“The present moment, if you think about it, is the only time there is. No matter what time it is, it is always now.” ~ Marianne Williamson


My grandfather, my most inspirational mentor, used to say “work hard and then you can play hard.”

He had mastered his own life’s philosophy at an early age, and I admired him for it unconditionally.

For me, his words were gold, so I would spend focused and highly productive hours clearing out unwanted toys, games and trinkets from my bedroom, rearranging the posters on my walls and making space. Space was important to me. It offered me room to feel and just be. Then, once there was nothing more to get rid of or rearrange, I would spend endless idle hours riding my bike, hands in the air, feeling the wind whipping through my hair and the thrill of being free.

As a college student, I studied hard, making the library my second home. I rewrote my notes, highlighted the already highlighted and began my research papers the moment the assignment slipped from the professor’s tongue. I liked to be ahead of the game.

Then, and only then, could I enjoy the freedom of being lazy on the beach and hanging with friends until all hours of the night.

As an adult, I became an expert at making lists of ‘’things to do.’’ The sheer delight of eliminating one thing after another with an old fashion pencil classified me as an archaic purest. Unlike most of my friends who needed three or four days to settle into vacation mode, I was fully present the moment I stepped foot on the plane; only because I had just crossed off my last ‘’thing to do.’’

That thing was always clean the house.

It was rare that I would find myself in the trawls of pure uninhibited pleasure before my to-do list was completed. This was the only way I could keep the ”demons of doing” from stealing my sense of enjoyment.

But life goes on, and as we grow older life can become just one big thing ”to do.’’ There was a husband, a baby, a house to clean, endless piles of laundry to wash, bills to be paid, a yoga center to manage, classes to be taught and then just more laundry and more bills and then two cats and then more cleaning and finally my to-do list became taller and larger than my 5’2’’ frame.

I was submerged in doing and had so little time just to be. There was no more balance; there was no more space; no more freedom. Life squeezed all the juice out of me. I wasn’t aware of it, but I was nose-diving quickly toward a place no one wants to crash. No matter how much I meditated, nothing could counterbalance the imbalance of my doing except, not doing. But the laundry kept piling up, and my anxiety became too much to handle. Burnout and breakdown filled my space.

I had hit rock bottom.

I carefully constructed my last to-do list before leaving. Minutes before catching the train I crossed off the last item. Ahead of me, lay 14 days of silence at a Buddhist meditation centre nestled somewhere far away from the piles of laundry and the unpaid bills. It was a strict regime- awake at five am, alternating every hour from seated meditation to walking meditation, with 90 minutes of daily karma yoga or selfless service, two simple meals and an hour of dharma talks with the master.

Upon my arrival, I was assigned the task of window cleaning. There were 41 of them in total, and they were gigantic. As of day one I had already calculated that if I worked quickly, I could clean all of them by day 10 and then I could have 90 minutes a day to enjoy the rolling emerald hillsides. Freedom!

By day eight, my right wrist was sore, but my mantra sung in tune with that old song—100 bottles of beer on the wall—became just two more days to go, six windows and 180 minutes left until space and freedom could be mine.

I had calculated correctly. By day 10, I silently yet proudly handed the Buddhist Monk my bucket of dirty water, sponge and squeegee. He looked at me with a kind and compassionate smile that most Buddhist have. He returned the empty bucket, the sponge and the squeegee and then pointed me toward window one. He explained that karma yoga wasn’t something to do and check off as a final destination.

My mind didn’t want to listen to his philosophical preaching about being fully present and something about some artful journey.

I just wanted to get to it and cross it off.

My resisting mind concluded that he had spent just a bit too much time, if you know what I mean, just sitting. I certainly didn’t get it. For me it was simple.

There were dirty windows—41 to be exact—and they all needed cleaning.

They were clean, so where was the problem?

I stood before window one. There I was staring into the glass, the reflection of myself staring back. I looked angry. I was angry—angry at him, at the clean windows, at the rules, at myself and life.

I knew that I wasn’t going to get out of there unmindfully alive, so I let go.

I returned to window one and did as he said. I slowed down. I observed. I listened. I allowed myself to feel. I watched my hand move slowly, feeling the sensation of the water trickle down my wrist. I heard the sound of the sponge against the glass swishing like waves against the shore. It was pure.

There was nowhere to go, no time constraints, nothing to accomplish and nothing, absolutely nothing, to cross off but be fully present in this sacred moment.

I got to wondering, was this what the Buddhist call now? Was this the life lesson that the universe illuminated when handing me a bucket, a sponge, and a squeegee?

What I do know is that in those moments of water swishing against the pane of glass and the squeegee doing its thing, my mind did slow down. There was a sense of ease, of inner peace and quiet contentment.

There was expansive space.

Then, my mind kicked in. This is all good and dandy here in this la la land of being but what about the laundry back home and my ongoing to-do list? Maybe making lists and crossing each item off is my remedy for sanity. It feels good and I wholeheartedly confess, I’m not ready to let go of that art quite yet. Maybe the solution is adding ”being” on my daily list.

Maybe it could look something like this:

* meditate
* take a nap
* stare idly out the window at nothing
* do nothing
* lay under the twinkling stars
* watch cloud formations create and dissolve
* sleep in
* lay motionless in a warm bath
* feel the in-breath cooling my nostrils
* watch the raindrops trickle down my windshield

I must admit, I like these new additions to my to-do list, intermingling the laundry and bills with timeout moments of nothingness. As long as I remind myself that I can’t do the list above but experience each with a soft focus, a relaxed approach, I feel expansive.

There is a balance there that is soothing; that is real, and that is doable in this fast paced world of mine.




Author: Jessica Magnin

Editor: Renée Picard

Image: Dustin Lee/Unsplash


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