Obsessive doing — rushing through an activity to get it over with — kills time. Leisurely activity makes time come alive because it connects us to the timeless. Artists of all kinds know this. Chefs know this. I am not a chef by any stretch of the imagination, but I love cooking and generally make up recipes as I go along. But when my hands are peeling the sprouts or washing the lettuce or cutting the salmon, my enjoyment comes not from the anticipated dish but from the trickle of water through my fingers, the smell of the sea from the salmon, the whir of the spinner as I dry the lettuce. Leisure fosters not only pleasure but enjoyment, and enjoyment happens when we are fully immersed in our experience, at the intersection of doing and being.
Rushing is not as enjoyable. We are always at least a step ahead of ourselves and forever straining to catch up. Rushing stops up the gaps in consciousness through which the creative muse can speak. It exhausts not only our physical but also our psychic energy. Over time it will exhaust our spirit, especially when we tell ourselves that these are things we must do, should do, or have to do. Then we lose all sense of agency and choice.
Obsessive doing happens not only externally but also in our minds, which are endlessly churning over thoughts and rerunning emotions. Outwardly, we may be doing no more than staring out the window or lying in a hammock, but inwardly we can be totally lost in the past or future. Then we are obscuring the present moment, which is the doorway to our own silent, aware presence, our deepest source of fulfillment and aliveness.
We struggle with the past when we won’t let it go, when we gnaw at it like a dog with a bone, endlessly chewing over something whose juice has long ago been sucked dry. We know we are struggling with the past when the same scenarios rise up in our minds over and over, without resolution. Does this mean we should never have thoughts of the past? Of course not; and anyway, that would be impossible. The mind churns out thoughts of the past and the future like a spaghetti machine. It’s part of its job. The past gives us the security of a journey, the continuum of a story, and we all need a story as long as we live. The difference lies in how lightly or tightly we hold on to that story.
It’s not the past that is the problem; it is the way we hang on to it, repeat it, regurgitate it, mostly in order to give ourselves a false sense of substance and identity. The problem arises when our stories of the past consume our attention in the present and prevent us from being fully available to the life we are living now. The signs of that malady are anxiety, regret, and the reliving of old thoughts and emotions. The past doesn’t have to take us over like that. If we maintain our attention in the present moment; if we remember to rest back into the stillness that is always here, then the past can serve a useful purpose right now as a memory library that we can use as a resource when necessary.
Neither is the future a problem unless our plans and fantasies so swamp our present experience that we are living in a dreamland rather than in the life we actually have. Surely one of the greatest gifts of the human mind is its capacity for forward thinking. The great projects of civilization were all the result of imagining some future scenario and working toward it in the present. No business would ever succeed without a business plan. No contract would be good for more than the day it was signed on.
The future becomes a problem only when our need for security compels us to worry and make up stories about what might happen or could happen. We’ve all gotten to the end of a long-anticipated meal only to realize that we have not been conscious of the taste of a single mouthful because we were fretting over some meeting later in the day.
That doesn’t mean we stop having future plans. It means we recognize we are asking too much of those future plans. Future events may cause a spike in our oxytocin levels for an hour or day or two, but they will never fulfill the sense of lack that we feel now. The sense of lack exists because we are not experiencing the only fulfillment that is truly available to us, which is the presence of this moment. We will never experience it if we are always running ahead of ourselves into the future or ruminating over the past.
The great work of being human is to live in the worlds of stillness and movement, time and timelessness, at one and the same time. You don’t have to get to silence, openness, awareness; in fact, you can’t. You only have to recognize that the stillness at the center of time is already here. It’s a direct experience, not a journey. Dropping the struggle with time isn’t something you do; it’s a spontaneous relaxation, a falling backward into what is already present. When we know the stillness at our core as a lived experience in the everyday, we breathe more easily, we go about our days differently. To be still and still moving is to know the end of time, even as the clock is ticking.
This is an Excerpt from Dropping the Struggle by Roger Housden.