Our minds are like one of those springs in the back of a wind up toy. Sure, winding up the spring makes you like a to-do-list destroying, 6-armed Energizer Bunny. Sometimes we need that to get things done, but the down-side is that winding the spring tightly means there is no space between our thoughts.
That space, that openness is where most of our virtuous qualities come from. It's where creativity, generosity and patience are born.
A lack of space is where stress comes from. Think of your mind like a window. If the window is cluttered, it can't serve its purpose.
I've been thinking about this because I'm starting a killer project at work. I'll be working long hours for a couple of months. The last time I had a project like this I became impatient and more pissed off than I should be. It took me months to get my shit together again.
This time I'm going to make sure I am keeping up with my responsibilities at work, while making sure the work doesn't flatten me. So I made a list of tricks that help me maintain space when life gets crazy.
- Guard your meditation practice - It's sometimes tough to get your butt on the cushion when life gets busy. The trick is to pick a schedule for your meditation that is feasible and stick to it. If you normally meditate for 30 minutes a day, but you'll only be able to do 10 minutes when your in-laws are in town, then make that commitment and stick to 10 minutes a day. Don't beat yourself up about it, but keep your practice consistent.
- Dedicate the merit at work - When you do work that is good and necessary, you are planting karmic seeds that build merit. At the meditation center, when we practice meditation or vacuum the floors, we dedicate the merit to emphasize the fact that we aren't building merit just for ourselves, but for all beings. Whether it is washing the dishes, planning your lessons, or making a spreadsheet, we could do any kind of work with the attitude that this puts conditions in place for other people to be effective, healthy or happy.
- Wash the dishes - When I'm crazy busy, activities like washing the dishes or making a meal help settle my mind. It's great if you can use this activity to ground you in your body. Feel the hot water on your hands. Appreciate the soapy lather. You might also find yourself lost in thoughts in the midst of washing dishes. If your mind needs some time to wander and process, that is OK too, but make this a practice that grounds you in the world, not just in your thinking world.
- Think of others - The other day I rode the metro to work just so I could focus my attention on other people. It's not as creepy as it sounds.... I left the house and chanted a traditional Buddhist liturgy in my head called The Four Immeasurables. I spent my commute dedicating one line of the liturgy to random people who walked by or who I saw on the train:
- May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
- May they be free from suffering
and the root of suffering.
- May they dwell in great equanimity,
free from passion, aggression and ignorance
- May they not be separated
- Exercise - Doing something that raises your body awareness is grounding and a scientifically proven stress reliever. When I ride my bike to work, I arrive much more energized. It also forces me to be aware of my surroundings. My Aikido practice also helps build awareness of my body and environment. I don't think about work for even one minute during an hour-long class, and I leave feeling more alive and in my body.
from the great happiness devoid of suffering.
- Use your free time wisely - When I get busy, my mind is like a perpetual motion machine. When I have an hour to relax I'll be excited to have a minute to do what I want to do, so I might surf the internet or turn on the TV. We have to be careful not to keep filling up the empty space, but to enrich ourselves with the empty space. As tempting as it may be to fill it up with more busy activities, try to spend at least some of the down time in nature, sitting quietly or communicating with people you care about. Even with just a couple of hours in the evening to yourself, if you use this time wisely you can create a lot of space to breathe in.
The idea behind all of these practices is that they will build a little more space in your day and in your mind. Creating this space is what meditation is all about.