Running While Sitting Still
I have a running mix on my iPod. All the songs share a quick tempo to support the rhythmic pounding of sneakers on earth. I haven’t gone for a run since October, but I feel like I’ve been living my life at that mile-eating pace nonetheless. Even when I’m sitting still, I’m running at a hundred miles-per-hour. When people ask “How are you?” the only answer I have for them is “Busy.”
This was my choice. I take responsibility for the promises I make. I walk into the chaos of my life with eyes wide open. As stressful as it is and will continue to be, I keep walking into it. So I have to wonder why? In a post in 2008, I noted:
I have the habit of over-scheduling my time. I make commitments. I take jobs, sign up for classes, schedule meetings, join clubs, find extracurricular activities, try to save the world one line at a time in my appointment book.
And I wondered:
Am I really running from laziness – or loneliness?
It’s this slightly sad, slightly frustrated, not quite right bit of heartache deep down inside. A hollow echo of a feeling which I am sometimes not even sure is there. …
I know exactly what it is, of course. I haven’t been reading that shelf full of Dharma books for these past few years for nothing. It’s want. I want something – something other than what I have at this very moment – another person. Someone to confirm my existence, to feed my pesky ego, to tell me I’m actually here and I’m smart and funny and pretty, in that order. That’s what lonely is.
I found that someone. And we’ve been spent almost every weekend together for the past six months. We’ve had dates, taken trips, gone on hikes, cuddled on the couch, and met each other’s families. It’s really been quite lovely, and I deliberately made time for this new relationship. I took my entire week and crammed it into five days, so the other two could be our days. I made myself more busy, not less.
Part of that is a result of prior commitments, responsibilities that predate this new reality. But another part of it is just habit. I’ve kept myself busy for thirty-odd years. I want to be busy. My exact motivations have changed over time, but it is built on the long-standing conviction (right or wrong) that I can achieve happiness through effort. Changing that deep flow of karma will take time. However, it is possible to transform that flow through Right Effort.
My classmates all seemed to be dealing with a similar theme this semester. It came down to the moment of response when someone asks us for help. For all the chaplains-in-training (and the professors, too), our natural inclination is to say “Yes! If you need me, I’ll be there.” We’ve trained ourselves to say “Yes!” We’ve trained ourselves to want to say “Yes!” This makes it almost unimaginable to not help. We have to refuse ourselves as much or more than anyone else. As a result our lives become unmanageably busy. We say “Yes!” to things we can’t actually do.
This semester we started talking about saying “No.” One classmate mentioned proscriptions in the Vinaya itself about when a monk or nun can say “No” to a request. (I am seeking the exact passage/reference.) First, if what is being requested will cause harm. Second, if you do not have the ability to do what is being asked. Third, if what is being requested will damage your reputation or the reputation of the monastic sangha. Under these conditions, a monk or nun must say “No.”
As chaplains, in order to preserve our ability to help others we must learn to say “No.” We must accept that the sufferings of the world cannot be solved through busy-ness. One part of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right Effort, not just indiscriminate effort. Right Effort is part of the path that is understood as particular to mental discipline, not worldly activities. In the Magga-vibhanga Sutta, the Buddha described Right Effort as generating desire and exertion of will in order to prevent evil and unskillful qualities from arising, abandon evil and unskillful qualities that have arisen, give rise to good and skillful qualities, and develop skillful qualities that have already arisen. (SN 45.8)
In the Sona Sutta (AN 6.55), the Buddha uses the metaphor of a stringed instrument:
“Now what do you think, Sona. Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the vina?”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too taut, was your vina in tune & playable?”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too loose, was your vina in tune & playable?”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned (lit: ‘established’) to be right on pitch, was your vina in tune & playable?”
“In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune (‘penetrate,’ ‘ferret out’) the pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there pick up your theme.”
Likewise, we can neither fill our lives with indiscriminate busy-ness nor avoid all responsibility or work out of fear or laziness.
I fill my life with busy-ness for many reasons. Years ago I felt it was because I didn’t want to be reminded of my own loneliness. I was not wrong, but I had not looked deeply enough. I am only beginning to understand the chains of my own karma.
Motivations and desires lead to actions. The very same desire and the very same action can be skillful or unskillful. We see the suffering of the world and desire to alleviate it. We can throw ourselves into action heedlessly, or carefully cultivate compassion and wisdom. We feel suffering in our own lives and desire to escape it. We can seek distraction endlessly, or diligently cultivate renunciation and let go our attachments. This transformation occurs within the mind, which is why Right Effort belongs to the realm of mental cultivation rather than ethical conduct (with Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood).
My classmates described this transformation with two simple acronyms:
NO = Nirvana Opportunity
YES = You Eventually Suffer
By changing our thinking in this way, we become more skilled at self-care. When we take care of ourselves, we preserve and enhance our ability to be of service to others. We prevent burnout and compassion fatigue. This enables us to go deeper into the suffering of those we help, rather than just giving them half-hearted help hoping for the best. We can be more skillful.
I’m as busy as I ever was, thus the lack of postings here on the blog of late. However, as I continue to examine my life, I gain a better understanding of the forces behind that busy-ness. Strangely enough, that makes it all easier to handle somehow. I’m slowly learning how to take care of myself better, my relationships, and therefore, better care for others. Sometimes that means saying “No” – especially to myself!