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Are my mindful practices taking away from actually getting things done?
Is that the least mindful question I’ve ever asked? Maybe. But productivity isn’t the point of life after all.
The thing about paying attention to my breath when there is chaos around me is that even if it might help, I am spending my time and energy paying attention to my breath instead of doing anything else. But in this time and space of reality, things do still need to get done.
There are days when noise pollution comes in the form of construction (the most grating), it comes in the form of peoples’ voices radiating through the street and my space, like demon vibrations from the underworld, and, sometimes, it comes coupled with added sensory overload from the smell of strong cooking that isn’t mine nor is to my taste.
I am a huge proponent of meditation practices as well as a believer in the idea that we can do anything as meditation at any time of the day. But I also rightfully recognize that it takes effort to apply these practices. Every time I stop to take a deep breath instead of launching over the terrace at the guy whistling in the street and through my nervous system, I’ve had to consciously make that choice.
When I take a deep breath and it’s filled with a smell that I don’t like, more energy is spent on managing the response to that. We are sensory beings, and it requires the manipulation of our resources to manage that. “The smell of gross food is enough to make me punch someone,” an otherwise sunny and positive colleague once told me. The absence of these triggers leaves more room to employ energy on other things.
After several days in a row of utilizing energy to manage the stress response to happy, go-lucky whistlers, jackhammers wreaking havoc on my brain, and my hair smelling like someone else’s cooking, what I ironically found helpful is that sometimes I’m too tired to care about it anymore. Chaos is amuck and I am just working in the presence of it, churning out what is needed to fulfill my various responsibilities, and not spending time taking intentionally deep breaths, feeling into my body, and quieting a reactive nervous system.
It’s like tiredness gives way to acceptance. But skipping straight to acceptance would probably be more—wait for it—productive. And healthy.
A friend recently reminded me of an age-old adage. “This too shall pass.” Nothing is permanent—good or bad. Not the blissful sensation of wind in the palm trees while I wrote in a journal on a beach in Mexico, not the pain of a breakup, not the anticipation of a presentation we have to give, or the joy of getting a skill we’ve been working at for a long time.
Nothing in this existence is permanent. And therein lies the helpfulness of acceptance.
Much of our discomfort comes from a lack of it. When something is bad, we are caught up in the emotional reactivity to it and the lack of acknowledgment of its transience.
When something is good and then ends, we, again, conflict with its impermanence.
“You will miss the noise when it is gone,” another friend joked with me recently. I thought of this recently when an unexpected block party erupted one afternoon, rattling the windows of my apartment as well as my fight-or-flight response.
In recognizing that going straight to awareness would be an easier path to getting what I want to be done, I have been using “this too shall pass” as a mantra and remembering that I won’t always be present with such noises, smells, sensory input, and bad disco music.
I remember that not so long ago, I was heartbroken. But I no longer am.
Not so long ago, I won a competition, but the satisfaction I felt in that moment has faded, and on most days, I forget that it even happened.
Not so long ago, I changed my coordinates on the map, and that, too, is soon to change again.
I’ve been taking deep breaths and acknowledging that for now, taking a deep breath is the best I can do with what I am working with, and sometimes that means that what I’d rather be doing is not getting done. There is acceptance in that, which feels infinitely better than thinking I should be experiencing my tasks differently.
I recall one time reading this nugget of truth by Stephen Cope:
“Through practice, I’ve come to see that the deepest source of my misery is not wanting things to be the way they are. Not wanting myself to be the way I am. Not wanting the world to be the way it is. Not wanting others to be the way they are. Whenever I’m suffering, I find this war with reality to be at the heart of the problem.”
For now, I am spending a good amount of time managing my sensory reactions and putting more effort toward mindful practices including meditation, breathing, awareness, and newly-added acceptance.
For the moment, this is how it is. The belief that I should be getting more done, construction should stop, and people should only cook the things that I think smell good consume the most energy, hindering productivity and the completion of my to-do list—both the necessary things and those self-created.
One morning, as a neighbor’s heels walked around in circles for over an hour before finally heading out the door and click-clacking down the stairs, I accepted that my consciousness chose to cling to the annoyingness of the sound of it as I tried to get an assignment done.
I took a deep breath to thank my nervous system as the clicks of the heels faded down the street. That, too, had finally passed and I could happily revel in the peace of acceptance and my ability to get things done in any experience as it is, regardless of any measure of productivity and despite how I think it should otherwise be.