When I lived in South Korea as a Zen nun, I heard about a nun called Songou Sunim and went to practice with her for three months. She was known for her simplicity and dedication to practice. Once she practiced in a hermitage for many months and decided to eat raw food to make things simpler. She sat on a zabuton (flat cushion) without a zafu (round cushion) again to make things simpler and become less dependent on external things. I tried it but I could not do it. I had to renounce this renunciation. What struck me the most was a phrase she told me once as we were having tea. She said: “the busier you are, the slower you should go.” Often I remember her suggestion when I start to feel busy and agitated.
We have the impression that the busier we are, the faster we should go and so we rush about. But if we look closely at “speeding to achieve more,” often we achieve less and sometimes things fall by the wayside or apart. We are limited by our physical, mental and emotional energy and there can be space and time constraints. Do we think that we are above these limits and constraints and can run around, accumulating projects and activities regardless? Or do we recognize and appreciate these limits and constraints and instead of fighting or hoping to transcend them, creatively engage with them? The basis for this creative engagement could be this phrase “the busier I am, the slower I should go.”
We can use this phrase in different ways. It could help us look at how we organize ourselves. Do we take on too much? Are we realistic about how much we can accomplish? How do we work? What are our assumptions? But even more so how do we feel or think? Do we need to feel busy to feel alive and worthy? Are we grasping at the feelings of rushing about and excitement? What would it mean to go slower? Would it be so bad? It might help us to prioritize better. What is important or essential now? What is urgent and non-urgent? When we are busy and excited everything seems urgent and essential but we can multi-task only so much before we collapse.
One of the keys to all these questions is creative awareness or mindfulness. If we become more creatively aware of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, then we are less likely to be taken over by the speediness of the busy-ness. If we are really well, we can accomplish a lot but if we are ill and tired, we will be able to accomplish much less. Can we accept this state of affairs, rest, recharge our batteries and start again?
Is the feeling of busy-ness provoked by constantly being ahead of ourselves, thinking of the next thing while trying to do one or two things now—then we are in the process of doing three things—one or two now and another one in the future. This tendency to anticipate and forecast can overwhelm us and makes us tense and scattered. But doing one thing at a time well, not too slowly, not too fast while totally engaged with it can make a difference. Because when it is finished we can move to the next thing without grasping at it or regret what has just passed or how it went. When we can leave behind the last task totally then we can be fully engage with the next task at hand.
When we start to feel busy and the impulsion to speed up, we can try to be aware of our body standing, walking or sitting, not an idea of the body but how does it feel right now? The feet on the ground, the back against the office chair, shaking someone’s hand, feeling the wind on the face if one is outside. Also it could be beneficial to be aware of one or two breaths—in and out, in and out, or being intimately aware of our surroundings—the green of a field, the blueness of the sky, the friendliness of a co-worker. And then back to the task at hand, what is the first thing to do, then the next, and the next one, each done in its own time, not tripping ourselves up by rushing about and being ahead of ourselves too much.
Sometime ago Stephen [Batchelor, Martine’s partner, also a teacher] and I were teaching a daily work retreat. At breakfast Stephen suggested that during their work that day the participants try not to rush about but do one thing at a time well. In the evening a participant reported that generally she rushed about because of the fear that otherwise she would not accomplish everything she has to do in her office. She equated a feeling of speed with efficiency. But that day she tried what Stephen suggested—one thing at a time with no rushing ahead. She was astonished that this actually made her more efficient and also much less stressed, thus more able to be with each task in a stable, open, creative and calm way.