I have always resonated with the title of the 1980’s book “I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can”. Until recently it has felt like a good description of my relationship with time. I prided myself on how much I could get done, and how efficiently; but equally, it was a tyranny.
Time pressure is endemic in our culture. As I experience it, the need to get things done on a deadline seems part of the basic structure –the assumptive framework– of school and life. It carries with it a sense of pressure that is so common that it may barely be noticed. Like the proverbial (contemplative) fish inquiring “what water?”, time pressure is part of the invisible milieu in which we westerners all seem to swim.
The capacity to function in this way is highly rewarded in our culture. I personally have benefited a lot from my ability to perform and achieve well under this particular pressure. However, the stress can be enormous. My emblematic memory is being a student writing a paper: caught up in the frantic, chaotic struggle of trying to write. My sense memory is a palpable sense of efforting, as if I could squeeze smart thoughts from my brain. (The bodily metaphor is obvious, is it not?)
But there was also a delicious payoff: after the struggle, an intense period of positive flow in which, finally, the logjam would free itself and words would just come, expressing themselves in ways which ultimately felt very gratifying. This sense of positive flow is, in fact, one of the northstars by which I have navigated my life.
Given my natural bent towards teaching and writing, on the one hand, and self-inquiry, on the other, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about, writing about, and just generally inquiring deeply about the struggle with time. My personality is stereotypical “Type A”, with its predictable impatience and dislike of wasting time. Like most Type A individuals, I am mostly goal-oriented, driven, and perfectionistic. I am prone to feeling always in a hurry, usually have too much to do in too short a period of time, and am always striving to learn things I think I should already have known.
In a Buddhist frame, these issues come into a different focus. For example, beneath the surface of goals and lifestyle, it is easy to discern what Buddhists call “ego identity”: the effort to “arrive” somewhere where we imagine finally being able to rest. But like Sissyphus, we can never get there. Driven by ideas of who we think we should become and what we should try to get, we forfeit Being in favor of Doing. This is Dukkha.
I have written at length about these topics elsewhere * , but what I want to share here are simply a few observations from my current self-inquiry that I hope may illuminate the communal predicament of feeling driven:
— Having recently completed a major project that has dominated my life for the past couple of years, I have felt a sea change: an organic shift in my ambition. The most salient feature is how tired I am of striving; of being at the effect of time pressure. In psychological language, being a workaholic has become ego-dystonic: no longer consonant with my intentions for my life.
— Treating myself like a workaholic in the early stages of recovery, I have turned the spotlight of my awareness practice to investigating how work and time pressure live in my mind. In my sitting practice, it has become abundantly clear how thoughts about ongoing projects dominate my awareness. The felt sense is of a kind of clutter that seems in the way of my ability to settle and to rest in my awareness. At the same time, the sense of clutter gives rise to a desire to organize it, which itself becomes the next layer of clutter.
— This comes together for me in the aspiration to allow my work to emerge rather than to be so tightly determined by executive choices I make. (Reminded of the bodily metaphor alluded to above, I am endeavoring to allow mental peristalsis to happen in its own way).
–In my life with writing, what this has meant is waiting for inspiration to write rather than feeling hostage to a schedule. For instance, I recognized that “bimonthly newsletter” was a self-imposed deadline which I could safely ignore. (This December 2020 issue was “supposed to” come out in October! )
–The antithesis of striving is, to me, the idea of emergence: attuning to what has not previously been known but which is in the process of coming into being through me. It is the invitation for things to unfold as they do; aligning with the process rather than the content of my experience (including the experience of working).
— One of the most impressive aspects of mindfulness practice, especially retreat practice, is the slow but steady ‘unwinding’ of experience that occurs as relaxation deepens. I find that the best way to invite this quality into daily life is by providing sufficient time and space for just “hanging out”. Hanging out amidst the pressures of daily life is a habit which can be cultivated by bringing mindfulness and intention to it, and, paradoxically, making sure there is enough room for it in our schedules. 🙂 [Easy to say but hard to do].
To trust emergence** in this way is to align with the natural rhythms of my existence; to live in a way which cultivates freedom and flow.
* Schuman, M. (2007) Driven to Distraction: Observations on Obsessionality. in Cooper, P. (ed). Out of the Mountain Stream: Psychotherapy and Buddhist Experience. Jason Aronson/ Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD. ; Schuman, M. (2017) Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis: Inquiring Deeply. Routledge Press, New York; London.
**Trust emergence” is one of the guidelines for meditation practice proposed by Gregory Kramer in his book Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path To Freedom(2007) Shambhala Press, Boston, MA.