Embracing our Finitude

This will be the first part in a two part set of talks that will include today and next week’s brahma vihara on Equanimity but from a slightly different angle. The inspiration for this comes from a book that I just finished reading called 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. The book made me think quite a bit about the way and reasons I approach tasks in my daily life and I felt that it was very fitting to share here. 

Oliver begins as you might surmise from the title with a question about the span of a human life in weeks. He finds that most people that he asks about this overshoot the number of weeks we have by a factor of ten at the low end. He puts this out there because he feels that the outlook of many and of many time management systems is to just cram as much as possible into every possible time unit and keep our heads down without looking at the horizon. This allows us to get caught up in the endlessness of mundane tasks, which I have learned to reframe, and not pay attention to what matters. There is a very similar sutta that the Buddha gives to his monks where he lists in lowered sequences of time from years, seasons, fortnights, days, and even down to meals, the span of a human life. One of the things that drew me to this path was this frank way of looking at our finitude. It isn’t something that is discussed in a blase or grandiose way but it looked at seriously. It is laid out block by block to encourage us to pay attention. To strive ardently and stop pretending that time is infinite, which we don’t really want it to be anyway. 

One thing I have had trouble with for a long time is repetitive tasks that always have to recur. Things like cleaning, mowing the lawn, trimming trees, working on my car, and sometimes even cooking and eating. They have felt sisyphean. You mow the yard and guess what you have to do it again in a couple of weeks or less and it is endless unless you replace your yard with fake turf or rock. I can’t stand these types of tasks. You can’t really efficiency your way out of them exactly, most take the time they take. Things get really bad if you just ignore them. This book and this topic really struck me for a few reasons and one of them is that Oliver points out that avoiding these specific types of tasks is avoiding looking directly at our finitude. These types of tasks put, and now I’m going to use dharma terms, not his, annica or impermanence in Pali directly in the forefront. The yard that never stops growing and never stays the right length is impermanence.  And I haven’t been able to embrace that. I have been pushing and pushing at this for most of my life without really thinking about and acknowledging this. Oliver also posits that a large reason we avoid these is that by really seeing this impermanence we have to acknowledge our own impermanence and that is not an easy thing to do. Now I have felt that I did acknowledge this fairly regularly but I had been ignorant of this aspect of practice. 

However, I had been given hints along my dharma path that had been lingering in my mind from teachers such as the late Vietnamese monk Thit Nhat Hanh and Jack Kornfield. Jack once described monastic life in my teacher training as having two parts: you sit on your cushion and you sweep the path. The cushion part makes sense that is what we just did today but the sweeping the path part made me pause. I don’t like sweeping paths. I certainly like it less that the cushion. Jack also brings this to the forefront with his provocative book title: After the Ecstasy the Laundry. This once again brings one of these necessary repetitive tasks to the forefront. Why can’t clothes just stay clean? Because they are impermanent. Thit Nhat Hanh describes his mindful presence while completing tasks such as washing the dishes in an often repeating story from one of his books. These breadcrumbs are all there. 

The rush of busy-ness. We are always rushing. And while there is the negative connotation to rushing. People also like to feel a rush. It can be exciting to be busy even when we are busy with meaninglessness like categorizing emails into proper folders. The true understanding is that we won’t ever reach this promised land where we are in complete control over everything we think we “should” be in control of. The to-do list will never be crossed off and there honestly is a joy in accepting that. Oliver found that abandoning these strategies of time management to do more and more to via a feeling of control we might find some peace of mind. However, he actually found peace of mind when it was abandoned. The more we let go the more freedom we have. “If I can get enough work done my self-conscious concluded, I won’t have time to sit around and ask myself if I should really be deriving so much of my self worth from this work in the first place.” What life may actually be asking me was to surrender this craving of control. We expend a lot of energy trying to not being here. We recoil from the notion that this is it with its extreme brevity, its bumps, scrapes, warts, and disappointments. 

Our struggle with time is this struggle with reality. We will not have time for all that we dream and we don’t have the control even if we did. Compulsive planning to avoid the feeling of lack of control. The more you believe that you can actually fit everything in, the more you will commit to and soon enough the days are filled with numerous things that matter less and less. The paradox of limitation is that the more you try to manage your time with the idea of being in control the more empty and frustrating it becomes. But the more will accept that a certain amount of this can’t and won’t be completed, the more freedom there is. It forces us to make the hard decisions when we embrace that I have limited control and I have limited time. 

In a sense this is a form of renunciation. We are renouncing the desire to be in control of our time. As Bhikkhu Bodhi says, renunciation is not compelling ourselves to give up things still cherished. This is something that I have thought for a long time, especially around time. The opposite of compulsive business is total sloth. There is nothing else. If I am not in a frantic rush, then I am compelling myself to be lazy. But Bhikkhu Bodhi continues that renunciation instead is changing our perspective on them so they no longer bind us. And so, I am working with this to allow this mistaken ego belief that I can control my time to no longer bind me because the original cherished idea that if I just managed my time perfectly then everything will work out and I will be secure is a delusion that has led to my suffering for a long time. I was able to practice some with this today. We had a deadline and things were brought up at the last minute that threatened either a severe rush to make sure it still was completed today. But I realized and accepted that when my subordinate failed to continue to respond to message about this project and I finally realized we will not get it out today and we will not make next weeks deadline along with the other knock-on factors, I was able to accept that I am not in control of this. I do not have to suffer to maintain an illusion of control and I can close my computer or at least not jump in myself to try to save it neglecting other tasks.