As I was finishing a meeting downtown one morning, I checked the DC NextBus iphone app and saw that a bus was arriving at my stop in just seven minutes. I said good-bye to the group, jaywalked across the street and jogged awkwardly toward Connecticut Avenue. I could see that my bus hadn’t arrived yet, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to get there if it pulled up now, and the next bus wouldn’t be there for at least another 20 minutes. Ironically, I was racing to catch the bus so I wouldn’t be late for my next meeting– at a yoga studio. Our weekly studio meeting, at which we decide things like whether to cancel a kids yoga class or exactly how many people we can fit into each studio, felt supremely important at the time.
I rushed along the crowded sidewalk, trying to look relaxed as my Dansko clogs surpassed a few high heels and even some running shoes. All of a sudden, I was off balance. I hadn’t tripped on anything, but I was going down. I tried desperately to regain my balance, but it was too late. I skidded along the gravely DC sidewalk in my grey cargo pants thinking, “This is so embarrassing!” Several working women, decades younger than myself, kindly asked if I needed help. I tried to act like it was no big deal, popping up like a fallen Olympic gymnast, “Tadaa!”
I limped to the bus stop and sat down to survey my injuries. My favorite pants were torn on both knees, and my left knee had a three inch red gash. I tried to look as normal as I could as other passengers arrived at the bus stop– staring at my phone while blood flowed down the front of my pants. As I continued waiting for the bus — which turned out to be 15 minutes later than predicted by NextBus — I realized that I had been running after more than just the bus.
I had become addicted to feeling like I was important. Having work that felt urgent was how I fed my addiction. Rather than mindfully contributing to whatever came my way, I habitually raced around like my hair was on fire trying to be of benefit. And when I am caught up in the chase, I’m not able to be present for the actual important things — like people, or sidewalks.
Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop with Judith Lasater, the woman who popularized Restorative Yoga (a form of yoga where you rest in super-comfortable positions, exerting almost no energy.) I remember very few of the restorative postures she taught us, but I will never forget what she said: “There is only one kind of emergency. It’s when someone is almost dying. If they are dead, it’s not an emergency, and if they aren’t dying, it’s not an emergency.” Since I have the habit of adrenalizing my life, her words really spoke to me.
None of my meetings or my work are emergencies, and yet I can still find myself rushing around from place to place. Inside my own home I sometimes notice that I’m rushing to put away the clean dishes or sprinting up the stairs to get something off the printer. There’s nothing innately wrong with moving quickly, but that internal feeling of urgency and rushing creates tension, bloody knees, and limits my ability to fully experience my life. It’s a subtle constriction that keeps pushing us to always be thinking about the next thing we can or should do, rather than the thing we are doing right now.
Where does this urgency come from? I notice that when I’m ramped up into urgency mode, it’s often because I have an inflated sense of my importance in the situation. Somewhere in the back of my mind there’s the thought that I alone must solve this problem or help this person, because otherwise nothing will change. That’s embarrassing to admit, because it’s bullshit.
And at the same time, my enthusiasm and effort toward making a contribution to the world are valuable and helpful. As Roshi Joan Halifax says, “Your urgency is a nemesis, but your wholeheartedness is a gift.” She goes on to say that the fatigue we create when we are living on urgency drains the life out of us and even out of the world. Many of us are running around trying to save the world, and as a result we’re too exhausted to be present to the life we already have.
“Enlightenment is the kind of freedom where there is no resistance within us. And our fatigue and our preferential mind just drain the life out of us and drain the life out of this world.” –Roshi Joan Halifax
A quote from first century Rabbi Tarfon sums up this practice of effort without attachment: “The day is short, the work is great…It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” We are not responsible for the final outcome of our work — whether it’s reversing climate change, working for racial justice, or catching the next bus to get to a meeting. And yet giving up completely isn’t helpful either. We still try to catch the bus, we just don’t lose track of the present moment in the process.
This habit of thinking our particular work is all-important may be based on our misunderstanding of the world as chopped up into pieces– this person or this work is important, and these others aren’t. But every single thing we do has some kind of impact. I have come to believe that what’s most important, as Tolstoy’s Story The Three Questions reminds us, is whatever and whomever is in front of us right now.
Ninth century Chinese Zen Master Linji said, “You have to realize the truth of the fact that there never has been anything to do.” In the commentary on this teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If we cultivate the spirit of aimlessness, we will be fresh and free, like the rose. But if the rose wishes to become a lotus, she will no longer be happy. A rose doesn’t need to become a lotus. A rose should just be a rose, and deeply manifest all her beauty and fragrance in the present moment.” Our real work is to be as present and as authentic as we can be in each moment. Closing ourselves off from the imperfect world that is in front of us right now in order to create a better world in the future doesn’t make sense, does it?
And yet, there is work to be done. Sitting on the bus that day, catching the blood as best I could with several used kleenexes dug from the bottom of my purse, I texted the yoga studio to let them know that I wouldn’t make the meeting after all. I got off at my stop, walked home and got into a warm bath. I cleaned up my wound and put some gauze around it to stop the bleeding. I took a short nap. And then I got up and got back to work.