“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves—slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”
~ Thích Nhất Hạnh
In the last few weeks, I’ve lost count of the number of people who have commented, “I can’t believe it’s September already. Where has the year gone?”
Comments of this nature have perturbed me for the longest time. Are we doomed to observe time ever speeding up toward our demise? Does each year pass more swiftly than the last, a series of moments and memories before another New Year’s Eve party rolls around and we collect ourselves, preparing to do it all over again?
Is this the nature of the inevitable passage of time, or is there something else at work?
One of the most defining characteristics of the modern condition is that people remain in a near permanent state of busy-ness. Being rich in “busy” and poor in time is often proudly worn as a symbol of status, importance and self-worth, segregating those who are productive from those who are not. Our productivity in many ways has come to define our humanity.
In truth, those of us who smugly wear the busy badge are in many ways the product of wider social influences that promote such behavior: the enduring influence of capitalism that equates time with money, and the need to be willing workers to win jobs, earn a living and relentlessly consume to propel the economy.
For some of us, busy-ness also represents a way to avoid dealing with the enigmas of existence. Rushing through the day, gaze fixed on what is mundane and predictable, releases us from the need to look deeply at our lives or sit still in moments of quietude to deal with the paradoxical beauty and unease that is unleashed by our humanness: how we live on this planet, interact with other creatures and come to terms with our eventual demise.
However, this busy-ness that colonizes our life, even in the most intimate and personal of spaces, is not inevitable—nor is it necessary.
Researchers argue that busy-ness, rather than being demonstrative of success, is actually indicative of cognitive overload that negatively impacts our creativity and productivity, preventing us from fulfilling our potential. There are now numerous studies that prove that working harder and being busier does not equate to greater productivity. In fact, occasionally being mentally absent, daydreaming, napping and taking regular breaks from work have been shown to enhance our performance.
Fear not, however. There are tried and true methods to bring balance to the busy and a sense of spaciousness to your day. Here are some of the most effective ways I have encountered:
1) Miyamoto Musashi, the Japanese samurai, once wrote, “Do nothing that is of no use.” A skilled warrior and fighter, he understood the importance of not squandering action or energy. In the landscape of your day, you must determine which tasks are indispensable, with the potential to yield benefits for your life and wellbeing, and which are superfluous.
2) There are significant lessons in the teachings of Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. Hanh teaches that carrying out the simplest of everyday tasks in a state of mindfulness and attention is of the utmost importance. With this in mind, when I hang out washing, I pay attention to the scent of freshly washed linen, the feeling of light and wind on my body as I hang the clothes and draw happiness from the knowledge that I will be enjoying clean sheets that night. Grounding and losing ourselves in the real and the sensory—what we can smell, see, touch, hear and taste—is always a valuable way to disengage ourselves from the terrain of our minds and become re-entwined with the world, and the present moment.
3) Ensure that each and every day you engage in at least one timeless activity—an activity you absolutely love that allows you to lose yourself in a state of flow. It could be as small as practicing a sequence of your three favorite yoga poses, or something lengthy like a bike ride somewhere scenic. I personally love dance, and no matter how busy my week threatens to get, I safeguard Wednesday evening to lose myself in the joy of burning holes in the soles of my dance shoes.
4) Begin the day with a non-negotiable ritual that means something to you. For a good friend of mine, it is an early coffee from the café around the corner from her house and a chat with the locals and the barista. For me, it is reading my daily poem from A Year with Hafiz: Daily Contemplations and reflecting. Beginning the day in this way allows me to feel that what unfolds from that point onward is partly up to me.
5) There are also more radical measures we can take to reclaim our lives. In her recent book on climate change, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein discusses the necessity of moving toward a three-day workweek. Working less, she contends, would allow people more time to engage in leisure pursuits and community projects, spend more time with family and friends and would be better for the planet. Furthermore, working fewer hours would allow for a more equitable distribution of labor across more people, which is significant in our society, where jobs are rapidly becoming obsolete and competition is high.
I have embraced this last suggestion wholeheartedly. In my previous job, despite pressure to work five days, I insisted on working four, and in my current job I work only three. While this has obviously brought with it an accompanying drop in salary, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. My days feel more spacious, and there is time to cook wholesome meals at night, exercise every day, really spend time with people, help out others and follow pursuits that allow me to feel enriched and full: yoga, dance, horse riding, writing and gardening. Moreover, the loss of income is not nearly as noticeable as you may think: when we work full time, we often spend money on things that compensate for the long hours of work: consumables to treat ourselves for working so hard, fast food because we don’t have time to cook, and medicines, vitamins and supplements because we are more vulnerable to stress and illness caused by overwork.
Is there scope in your job to cut back on hours? How much do you really need to work to support yourself or dependent others? We should aspire to thrive on shorter workweeks, and aim for a more fully engaged life: growing vegetables, buying pre-loved or vintage goods, sharing more and consuming less. And think: what would we do with the vast spaces of time that would open up to us? And most importantly, how would a shift away from a life centered on working, to a life oriented toward living, change our identity and sense of being?
Hanh, Thich Nhat. (2008). The Miracle of Mindfulness. The Classic Guide to Meditation by the World’s Most Revered Master. Random House.
Klein, Naomi. (2015). This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. the Climate. Simon and Schuster.
Musashi, Miyamoto. (1998). The Book of Five Rings. Bantam.
Author: Emma Stone
Image: Ally Mauro/Flickr
Editor: Toby Israel