A monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax: “What is Buddha?”
Tozan said: “This flax weighs three pounds.”
It is so impossibly hard to do one thing at a time in this day and age. As I sit to write this, I’m thinking about a number of other things — the 500 words I promised myself I would write on a short story, populating the latest to-do app with all of the steps I’ll need to take to finish all of my projects, the salmon in the oven, the vegetables on the stove, the friends who are hurting very far away, the people who dislike me. It’s difficult to consistently bring my attention to the present, to the words I’m writing right now. Why is that?
We live in a time of instant gratification. If we want to know something, most of us who are reading this have a way to look it up instantly. A lot of us are lucky enough to be able to buy something we want — if even only for a fleeting moment — just as fast. All we have to do is go to a website, click a few buttons, and expect that what we want will arrive in a few days. This is a wonderful time, but it also means that we’ve lost the ability to wait for things, to be uncomfortable, to anticipate something we’ve worked or waited long for.
Don’t worry — I’m not going to spend this entire post talking about how instant gratification has ruined our ability to actually enjoy the moment. But it has hindered it. Because we can get so much done so quickly, it’s easy to take care of business and move on to the next thing without thinking about it. Sometimes we’re already thinking about the next thing before we’ve even finished the thing we’re currently doing.
I’ve fallen into this trap. There are so many things I’d like to do, and there are only so many hours in the day I can do them. While I’m at work, I’m thinking about all of the writing I could be doing. While I’m home watching TV, I’m thinking about writing, or email, or work, or studying. While I’m writing, I’m thinking about all of these other projects. I’d like to try to send Christmas cards this year, and there’s a limited amount of time that I can actually put that together. Same with Christmas presents. Same with any Kwanzaa plans I’d like to organize.
My life has been filled to the brim, which makes it difficult for me to find enough space to take a breath. Those breaths are absolutely necessary for orientation; they give me a sense of perspective about how far I’ve come, how far I have to go, allow me to enjoy the distinctive place in which I find myself. I’ve spent a very good part of these last few months rushing around, trying to get things done, but not enjoying the process of doing them.
The koan at the top of this post is one that I use to center myself often; Buddha nature is three pounds of flax, no more and no less. Buddha nature are these words that I’m writing, the feeling of my fingers on the keys, the sound of video game music in my ears. It is here and now. That’s it.
Because I’ve made such great strides in determining what’s been blocking me from being productive this year, the anxiety I had about my ability to do things has been replaced by a different anxiety — one in which I’d better be doing things all the time. When I try to step back to think about all of the things that I have to do, it makes me think that any time wasted is another goal that won’t be met.
This month, I would like to take a moment and focus on the three pounds of flax. I’d like to re-center myself so that I’m fully engaged in what I’m doing. It might mean that I’ll be doing less, but hopefully it also means that I’ve invested so much more of myself in what I do achieve. Stripping away the distractions that surround me all the time to give myself over entirely to a project for a certain length of time is the only way to really enjoy the process of working.
I know how difficult this might be to pull off. December is a frenzied time of the year; we’re trying to manage our daily lives — which are full enough — while also trying to find and buy presents, send cards, prepare for parties and Christmas itself, decorate our homes and trees, prepare for New Year’s…the list goes on. This year I’m trying to do quite a bit more than I ever have before; I have a feeling a strong sense of organization, a great to-do list and a determined, efficient managing of my time is a necessity to make it to the next year without completely losing my mind.
But first, I have to make sure that I only focus on one thing at a time. First, the blog; then, a breath; then, the next project. So on, and so on, taking pleasure in the doing and completion of each task. The holidays provide an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness and embrace single-tasking. It’s high time I took it.