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The Need for Speed and The Grace of Space

5 April 2019 | , Elizabeth Granger | Mindfulness Practice ,

I have been undertaking an experiment lately (as part of that broader experiment we are all involved in – otherwise known as life!) where I am trying to find a wiser relationship with my to do list. This list can take many forms, usually along the lines of planning, organising, anticipating, speculating, - that is it involves lots of thinking!

And what I notice, as my to do list takes hold once again, is that my mind becomes both distracted and slightly anxious. In those moments I lose connection with myself (and others if they are around).

Of course to do lists serve a purpose. As a working mother with kids, there is a lot to organise, and so mentally going through my list can help me attend to everything and everyone in a more orderly, less chaotic way. However I have become interested in how often my mind goes there – It is a habit of mind – and it often happens when there is nothing urgent to be attended to in that moment, or when I’m not being fully stimulated by demands.

So this points to something deeper – this need for speed I think we all have to some extent. We get a quick shot of dopamine every time we tick something off or feel a momentary sense of accomplishment, but pretty soon we are onto the next thing, more striving. Nietzsche, a 19th century German philosopher wrote "Haste is universal. Everyone is in flight from oneself".

I have been toying around with this idea that when I get caught up in my to do list, I am taking flight - but what from? Through paying attention and investigating this a little more deeply I have come to realise that I am taking flight from a more pervasive underlying anxiety. This persistent to do list is fuelled by a deeper sense of inadequacy. “If I do this, or achieve that I will feel more competent” or to put it another way I won’t have to feel so deficient or “not enough”.

It has been easier to work with this when little spaces arise in my day. For example when I’m walking to work, as I think about what’s ahead, I start to feel a little more anxious and my whole system revs up a little. Then the moment I notice this and I interrupt it by opening to my senses, feeling the temperature of the air against my skin, seeing the clouds moving in the sky, something settles in me. I feel the movement of my breath, sounds arrive at my ears, and as I rest in the grace of the world without having to do anything, there is less “I” or “me”. A sense of ease and contentment arises and my heart opens. Often wonder and gratitude arise in the fullness of this moment. This moment is enough.

This space can wake us up from the “trance of unworthiness” as Tara Brach, a very well known mindfulness teacher calls it. It can be a powerful antidote or balm to our need for speed, helping reconnect us to our more wholesome qualities which abide underneath our feelings of inadequacy or deficiency. These spaces also give us an opportunity to deliberately choose how we wish to be in this next moment – with ourselves, with others or with the world.

Of course the key is noticing when we get caught up, and the next step is to deliberately open up to or create this space. This is easier said than done as there are many forces operating against us including the pull of our devices and our own inbuilt negativity bias which means we tend to pay more attention to potential threats than what is going well.

However this is where our mindfulness practice can help us – we are deliberately making this space to work with the habits of our mind and also open to what is here, beyond what is front and centre in our mind. Often it can feel painstakingly slow work but over time certain unhelpful habits may loosen their hold on us and in their place, a deeper sense of ease and freedom may abide.

Every single day I know I have this choice – to either consciously work with these habits of mind so as to live my life with a deeper sense of connection, fulfilment and meaning, or succumb to those forces that threaten this way of being and knowing. As Mary Oliver in her poem “The Summer Day” writes:

“Tell me, what is it you wish to do with your one wild and precious life”.

It is worth paying attention!