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(Personal) Three Pounds of Flax

Buddhism 150A 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.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2015 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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Whatever Your Heart Can Handle

Self Improvement 150As an online rabbit, I know about the importance of running and cardiovascular exercise to my overall health. And I’ve been trying to develop a good running practice for a little over seven years now — first by regular trips on the treadmill and then by carving out good routes around the burrow. As you might guess, it hasn’t gone too well. I’m sidelined by pains and injuries fairly often, and the constant push to run farther, faster makes the practice far less attractive than staying in my warm little hole and helping myself to a glass of wine.

And that’s not even to say that I dislike running — on the contrary, I really love that sweat-soaked rush of endorphins I get after I log a few miles. But there’s not denying that it takes considerable effort — to get myself out the door, to keep pushing when it feels like my lungs are going to burst or my calves are going to snap away from the backs of my knees, to keep running even if it’s cold or rainy, or I’m tired or stressed. Even though I feel great about it afterwards, running is often a deeply unpleasant activity marked by gasping for air, a pounding heart, and persistent pain around the joints and muscles.

In the interest of learning how to run better so that I can actually do it on a regular basis, I signed up for a Fitocracy Fitness Group called “Level Up Your Running”. I have to say, it’s already making a difference. We’re only three weeks into a twelve-week program, and my relationship with running is already changing. I really believe the key to this change relies on changing up my pace, and the expectation of what I should be doing whenever I lace up the running shoes.

My trainer is a big believer in pushing yourself, but not too much. She believes you should listen to your body while you’re running; if your focus starts to narrow to simply what’s in front of you and you can’t actually talk because you’re too busy panting then it’s no good. Instead, you should be able to carry a conversation when you run, and you should have your full range of vision. You should actually have time to notice your surroundings.

For an out-of-shape asthmatic rabbit like me, that means running ridiculously slow. If you were to see me out on the street, you’d see this dumpy guy taking quick steps (180 per minute, thank you very much) that are so short it looks like he’s shuffling. He glances around, occasionally taking a look at his watch to check his heart rate (which should be around 150 or so). It barely looks like exercise, but it is. And that’s the point. It’s not graceful, it’s not efficient…but it IS fun. At the end of my runs I get that nice rush of endorphins and I think “I could have done more. I can’t wait to run again.” As much as I love running, I never in my life thought I would say something like that.

The key, of course, has been pacing. I’ve had to let go of the standards I thought I should be maintaining for now. Gone is the idea that I should be running a ten-minute mile, or that I should be working up to four miles every single time I run. Right now I’m going a mile at a time, at around fifteen minutes a mile. It’s incredibly slow, and the running time is incredibly short. But for the first time in a very long time, the simple act of running is a thing I enjoy. That’s worth looking goofy and taking a huge step back from what I’ve been doing before.

Of course this philosophy works away from exercise, too. So many of us load up our plate with goals designed to push us as far as we can go because we think that’s what we need to do. But we burn out, or we start falling short, and our hobbies become these immense sources of guilt. To extend the running analogy, our hearts are beating way too fast, we can never catch our breath, and it’s only a matter of time before we blow a knee or an ankle under the stress.

The Art of Manliness has a great article on this that I think I’ve mentioned before. The 20 Mile March approach to goals prizes consistency over effort, so that you end up leaving quite a bit in your tank most days just so you don’t tire yourself out. There are going to be days where you don’t feel like doing the work to get yourself closer to your goals. There are going to be days where you can’t put in the work, for whatever reason. If you set a goal for whatever it is that’s low and easily reproducible, you can overcome most resistances to it or catch up easily whenever you’ve missed a day. That way, you can build a lasting habit that’s low stress and actually enjoyable. Setting a “maximum” limit for yourself each day is a great thing to do — it leaves you with the feeling that you could have done more, that you WANT to do more. And that leaves you actually looking forward to the next session.

So, if you’re trying to develop a habit but haven’t been able to make it stick, here’s what I would recommend: pull back. If you’re trying to write every day, make the goal so low it’s impossible not to do — a hundred words a day, or maybe even one sentence every day. Stick to that, even when you’re tempted to do more. You’ll find yourself doing more than cultivating a habit — you’ll cultivate the hunger to keep doing it, which is far more valuable.

 

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