This quote has been floating around a lot of sites recently:
“When asked “What thing about humanity surprises you the most?”, the Dalai Lama answered:
“Man…. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
— Dalai Lama XIV
It’s on my mind because we spent time with a relative this weekend who is in severe pain, likely triggered by overwork. The triggering incident happened to be an hour’s worth of being bent over in the bean patch. Her back is very unhappy now. Hospital and drugs unhappy. She is very unhappy, and understandably in a hurry to be out of pain and be back to taking care of the farm. In such a hurry, even, that I am not sure she will be able to tolerate resting enough to truly allow her back to heal.
This made me think of my own growing awareness of my slowly increasing limitations and how I am continually challenged to accept the impermanence of my human form. I once lost use of fine motor ability in my right hand for about a week due to an entire weekend of intense gardening. I have sustained numerous overtraining injuries from running. I once pulled two all-nighters in a row to finish a paper and could not see the computer screen by the end due to blurry vision. I have denied myself proper sleep, nutrition, play, rest, fluids any number of times and paid dearly. For what? I am still not sure.
I have learned, with difficulty, how to listen, to take breaks, and to slow down. Others I know are not so lucky. Why do we do this? Where are we racing to? What will happen when we get there? Recent research says this is often about narcissism, low self-esteem, and a weak sense of self. Some of it is without our permission, programmed by media, societal norms, American values, and the myth of the self-made man (see Outliers for a new perspective on this idea). Sometimes we have internal scripts we aren’t even aware of that say “I’ll be happy when ________”, but as soon as we fill in the blank we become restless and set a new goal.
What if, instead of “just one more thing”, you said, “it will still be there tomorrow,” or, “the chores will always be there, so I will do what I reasonably can today”? What if you addressed only what is in front of you today, only what you can do today? Would you be less valuable, less competent, less anything? Are you afraid you won’t feel or be seen as above average, superhuman, or “better than” anymore?
Doing this means really looking at what you are doing. It means re-evaluating what you can get done in a day, asking for help with some of it, building cushion into your schedule so you aren’t always frazzled, and listening to your body when it tells you it needs something. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever be busy, but that busy isn’t your default state.
I have been doing it for a few months now, and I can say it definitely reduces stress levels. My quality of life has improved exponentially. It is still taking practice (old habits die hard), and I still have twinges of leftover guilt from my previously conditioned thinking. But, there are fewer bumps due to schedule snafus, more breathing room and time to think when “life” happens, more ability to be present in my own life and for the people I love as well as those I serve through my work. I prepare and eat real food more often, meditate more, work out less, and feel more connected to others. I am wrestling with the guilt I feel about not wanting to work 40-60 hours per week anymore, and about my past judgment of others who were lucky enough to have a 30 hour work week.
Now when I see commercials or other “self help” propaganda that promotes doing it all, having it all, or workaholism, it feels like a wrong note in piano practice. I just know now that it isn’t right. It isn’t sustainable. It isn’t really living. Women have especially been fed the “you can have it all” line. What isn’t often talked about are the tradeoffs of work compulsion – in health costs, and the costs to children, spouses, friends, and family. It’s promoted with slogans like “just do it” and hokey motivational posters with people hanging off cliffs and talking loudly about how much we have to do while standing in line to buy coffee. This rat race culture is even praised as an American trait by an insurance commercial you may have seen recently.
There is a growing sound of the call for sanity, the growing sound of a “no” to “more is better”. Leo Babauta is one of those voices promoting a more mindful way of life. It’s about saying no to what’s not real. We seem to have so much trouble with this little word, and Starbucks is all too happy to support our lack of boundaries. It’s about living life more mindfully, being more present, and focusing more on what is here, rather than perpetually living in what might be. Your life is calling. Will you answer?