Lately a lot of my dharma practice has been revealing restlessness. Even when I think I’m being calm and slow and contemplative, I still am giving more thought to my Instagram-mind, or my what-do-I-need-to-do-next mind. Most of all I’ve noticed that my inclination toward efficiency in all things leads me to always be doing more than one thing at once, and this is the source of many small sufferings (Buddhist philosophy speaks of “suffering” a lot, but the word is loaded in English and perhaps better translations would be “dissatisfaction” or “stress”).
Let’s say I’m cooking dinner. I may be carefully frying onions, trying not to burn them, but I also realize I want to prepare some (vegan) sausage, so I pull that out and start to chop it up, figuring that it’s relatively little effort to do that and watch the onions at the same time. And it is, but inevitably there’s another thing; I realize that the cutting boards are not where I want them to be; someone has left them dirty in the dish washer. Ok, no problem, I can wash one off pretty quick. And I can, but then another thing; my wife is texting me asking about some papers she needs for her work, can I go find them real quick? Of course I can, but then another thing… you see how it goes.
While I tell myself that I can handle juggling all these things – and I can, and I even take a certain pride in my ability to push each thing onto a mental stack, constantly sort and re-sort their priority, and pop off what needs to be done at each and every moment – each item on the stack takes a mental toll.
It’s a tension in my belly, a furrowing of my brows, a tendency to snap at others if I’m interrupted. It’s unhappiness at the way things are. It’s stress. It’s Dukkha.
I’ve started to feel this toll in so much of my day. Microscopic things, mostly. Wanting to sip some tea while listening to a podcast. Wanting to wash some dishes while cooking. Even wanting just to think about something, perhaps a future event, when I’m busy doing something else. The thinking might be the hardest one of all.
And the solution that I’ve come to? It doesn’t require a lot of thought to figure out. Pay attention to each thing that is going on. Give it my full attention and, if I need to do something else, then totally stop doing the first thing and move on to the other. Switching isn’t the problem, it’s my resistance to stopping, my resistance to switching that is causing the suffering.
That makes it sound so easy, though. “Just do one thing at a time.” It’s cliché. For cooking onions it might indeed be easy. The hard ones are the thoughts, the emotional reverberations, and the conversations that require some time to digest (and which ones don’t, I wonder?). It’s hard for me to treat needing to think about something as worth pausing in my activity.
I’m starting to look for the feeling of that tension arising, or for the thought of “I just need to…”, and to say a resounding “no” when it appears. Well, maybe not so harsh an expression, but certainly a firm one is needed, because it’s insidious. “Oh, just this thing, it’s not really that bad” is so hard to deny, to see through the illusion of the thought. And one reason, I believe, is that I worry that I’ll be judged for it, for being slow or inefficient, or that things that matter to me or to others will not get done.
But what’s more important? Getting things done or being at peace? That’s not a trick question, or meant to be rhetorical; that’s the question that I need to ask each time I encounter these feelings. In general, when I really force myself to look at it, my answer has been “being at peace”. So my practice has become trying to find ways to just do one thing. I’ll let you know if I still manage to get things done.
What it comes down to is that the experiences in my life demand more time than I want to give. It’s challenging to stay with one experience even when others are calling. I suppose that’s the point of formal meditation, and perhaps a significant part of the recipe for a contented life.