Three posts on how to shift your relationship with work, stay more mindful, and reduce stress. My father used to say that hard work never killed anyone, and he was right: some degree of being kept occupied by work is good for our creative energies. Furthermore, work allows us make a contribution to the world. However, modern work is frequently driven by non- stop deadlines and busyness. This can spread into our whole day by the fact that we are in constant connection through emails 24/7, notifying us of work to be done or forgotten. If we refuse to buy into this constant activity we are made to feel guilty or disloyal.
As Marc Lesser says: Our daily incessant busyness – too much to do and not enough time; the pressure to produce a to-do list and tick off items by each day’s end – seems to decide the direction and quality of our existence for us. But if we approach our days in a different way, we can consciously change this out-of-control pattern. It requires only the courage to do less.
He goes on to give three thoughts on how to begin doing less. They are our starting points for reflection on balance in work:
1. We do less by taking the time to rest mentally and physically in between or outside of our usual activities, perhaps instituting a regular practice of meditation, retreats, breaks, and reflection.
2. We do less by pausing in the midst of activities: mindfulness practice (such as coming in touch with our breath in between reading or sending emails) and walking meditation are two examples.
3. We do less by identifying and reducing unnecessary activities. In this case, “unnecessary” means those things that are not in alignment with what we want to accomplish.
Marc Lesser, Accomplishing More by Doing Less
As I have written before, finding quiet time isn’t a luxury; it’s essential for protecting your health.
So sometime each day just sit in silence. Go somewhere where you don’t feel pressured to do anything. There is no need to make it complicated, or to think of it as a sacred ritual. Maybe just sit with a cup of tea or coffee in the morning, before the work day starts. Become aware of your breathing. Become relaxed in the stillness. When your mind wanders, just come back to the awareness of your breathing. Let go of doing for a few minutes. Be good to yourself.
All around the world the popular Christmas song, Stille Nacht/Silent Night is sung on this day. The German word stille has some deeper connotations than what is conveyed by the English word “silent”. It has its roots in the verb “stillen”, meaning to suckle, to quieten a child and put to rest. The mother feeds and comforts the hungry child so that it becomes calm and content, able to close its eyes and sleep. For us too, the calm which we all desire inside our hearts is related to our awareness of being safe, which allows us to become still inside.
As an adult, can we ever get back to this early awareness of calm? Maybe never fully, but there are some things we can do. It seems that this interior stillness is related to exterior quiet. It has been found that noise raises cortisol levels, the hormone related to stress and anxiety and that taking some quiet time lowers these levels. It has even been measured. Apparently 12 minutes of quiet will bring down cortisol levels in the brain and lay the foundation for calm. However, these days, this is not se easy to do. We are continually bombarded by noise: the TV, radio, iPods, mobile phones, and computers hardly stop for a second. We also live in an age of visual stimulation that leaves us craving louder and brighter, kinds of entertainment. These means that a lot of us are extremely uncomfortable with silence and have become so unfamiliar with it that even momentary periods of quiet are quickly filled with sound or anxiety.
And yet, we all long to silence the noisy chatter of our thoughts, the crying of our needs and emotions, and develop a place of quiet and calm within us. A place which is safe, away from the judgments, expectations and demands placed on us by our own critical mind or by others. At some times in our lives we find it relationships with others, or in the embrace of our family. However, what this day and all the wisdom traditions remind us, is that real, lasting peace is to be found within our hearts, a quiet space where nothing can harm us, untouched by all the stuff that others may wish to impose upon us. If we do not find that stillness within, it is hard to find it in the outside circumstances of our lives. Only when we have found this inner place of peace can we have contact with others without anxiety. We can rest, and be still, without fear of being hurt.
Another heavy fall of snow overnight. Heading out to dig a way out of the driveway. Lots of conversations these days with people who are trapped and blocked in their lives, who do not see a way out. I noticed how frequently they turn to blame themselves and feel they should have done more to dig themselves out of the difficulty they are in, increasing the sense of guilt and worthlessness. Sometimes we have to allow what is happening, when pushing to change ourselves only makes the sadness worse. We cannot replace some difficulties or sadness with positive thoughts. Strange, but getting out sometimes requires that we accept that we are stuck. What starts to move the snow is showing kindness towards ourself. Most blocks come from fear; holding our fear as a mother holds a frightened child shifts our relationship towards it and can allow it to slowly melt.
What shuts down the heart more than anything is not letting ourselves have our own experience, but instead judging it, criticizing it, or trying to make it different from what it is. We often imagine there is something wrong with us if we feel angry, needy and dependent, lonely, confused, sad, or scared. We place conditions on ourselves and our experience: “If I feel like this, there must be something wrong with me… I can only accept myself if my experience conforms to my standard of how I should be.”
Meditation cultivates unconditional friendliness through teaching you how to just be—without doing anything, without holding onto anything, and without trying to think good thoughts, get rid of bad thoughts, or achieve a pure state of mind. This is a radical practice. There is nothing else like it. Normally we do everything we can to avoid just being. When left alone with ourselves, without a project to occupy us, we become nervous. We start judging ourselves or thinking about what we should be doing or feeling. We start putting conditions on ourselves, trying to arrange our experience so that it measures up to our inner standards. Since this inner struggle is so painful, we are always looking for something to distract us from being with ourselves.
In meditation practice, you work directly with your confused mind-states, without waging crusades against any aspect of your experience. You let all your tendencies arise, without trying to screen anything out, manipulate experience in any way, or measure up to any ideal standard. Allowing yourself the space to be as you are—letting whatever arises arise, without fixation on it, and coming back to simple presence—this is perhaps the most loving and compassionate way you can treat yourself. It helps you make friends with the whole range of your experience.
I think Carl Rogers said it best. He said the great paradox was that it was not until I accepted myself just as I was that I was free to change. In other words – acceptance, pausing and being with our life just as it is, is the the precondition to all transformation. For us to be free, we need to stop believing the thoughts that something is wrong. We need to stop running away from the very vulnerability that needs a profound type of self-compassion. Whatever we cannot embrace with love or with acceptance imprisons us. It keeps us in the trance of a bad self. So the path of emotional healing is really the path of stopping the war, of pausing, of not believing the judgments, of not continuing to punish ourself. Instead of running away and trying to escape the rawness that is here, really meeting it with a deep, deep compassion.
Tara Brach, Meditations for Emotional Healing