Wise Priorities

Weeks ago, Pam Lewis gave me a copy of a sermon delivered in 2004 by Reverend Jeffrey Symynkywicz. The sermon’s title is Zerrissenheit, a German term used by the philosopher William James to refer to the state of feeling torn to pieces—as in “pulled in many directions by too much to do.” Because this feeling is familiar to most of us, I’ll share some reflections about the challenges of setting wise priorities in today’s busy world.

In our modern lives, we tend to be distracted with multi-tasking, and we lack sufficient time for reflection, creativity and spirituality. That may be a perennial problem, but it seems exacerbated as we try to keep up with e-mails, texts, Tweets, Facebook messages, Skype chats, YouTube videos, and voice mails. With constant input, it’s hard to focus on healthy priorities.

I just read an article in the New Yorker magazine about Google glasses that enable the wearer to have constant access to the Internet. Two people wearing these glasses can snap photos of each other and chat about the virtual reality that each is experiencing, without ever connecting directly or looking into one another’s eyes. Something precious is lost in this kind of rapidly morphing, superficial, virtual interaction.

Trudy Goodman, the senior teacher of Insight L.A. sangha, says, “When you wake up in the morning, meditate before you open your e-mail account.” Trudy has found that if she reads “just one quick message,” she becomes sucked into the swamp of incoming mail, which erodes a peaceful beginning to the day.

I feel centered when I begin the day by turning inward with Metta prayers and Qigong practice. Sometimes, though, I’ll first escort our dog Marisol outside and fetch Mark’s daily Houston Chronicle for him. Instead of simply delivering the paper, I can easily become lost in scanning headlines, reading local news stories, reviewing editorial comments, and checking out the latest Doonesbury cartoon. By the time I wake from the newspaper trance, I rush to accompany Mark and Marisol on a morning walk, and I feel off-kilter.

Likewise, in the late afternoon, I often have to drag myself away from working at the computer to take a break for meditation with Mark. Even though I’m very aware that we both benefit by pausing for a period of mindfulness practice, I can postpone doing so when I’m trying to finish one more task on my “to do” list. Whenever I postpone what is wholesome, I feel fragmented.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes about our spiritual yearning for wholeness. When we are pulled in many different directions, with conflicting influences and demands, we become disconnected from the essential divine Self—our Buddha nature, which underlies all the various roles we play.

To be fully human, we must be present with where we are. We tend to run from one thing to the next, dividing our time into tiny bits and pieces, avoiding solitude, and missing what is right in front of us.

When I volunteer at Houston Hospice, I practice being present. At the bedside of a patient who is dying, I know that I will probably not have another opportunity to appreciate that person’s life. It’s now or never. Every week there, I learn lessons about the fragility and vulnerability of human existence, and I’m reminded to wake up and to show up for family members who are witnessing the impermanence of the life of a loved one.

Reverend Jeffrey recounts the story of a professor who was teaching a group of business students. He showed them a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and carefully placed about a dozen fist-sized rocks, one by one, into the jar until no more rocks could fit. He asked the students, “Is this jar full?” Most of them responded, “Yes.”

But the teacher held up a bag of gravel and poured some of it into the jar, filling in spaces among the rocks, and asking, “Now is the jar full?” One student replied, “Probably not.”

The professor nodded and lifted a bucket, pouring fine sand into the jar, where it settled into spaces between the rocks and the gravel. “Is the jar full?” A chorus of voices answered, “No!”

Smiling, the teacher held up a pitcher of water and poured it into the mason jar, until it was filled to the brim. “Now,” he said, “it’s full.”

He explained that the moral of the story was not how to squeeze as many things as possible into your schedule, but how to set priorities wisely.
If we don’t put our big rocks in first, they won’t all fit. Often we fill the fragile jars of our lives with sand and gravel—all the “have-to do’s” and “ought-to do’s,” the many distractions and the dull, necessary tasks. These are the sand and gravel of our existence, an inescapable part of life, but they are not the “big rocks” upon which we want to base our lives.

Consider what you want to be remembered for in your life. What gives your life a sense of meaning and purpose? What inspires you and gives your soul joy? Is there room in your jar of life for family, friendship, meaningful work, civic involvement, creative pursuits, and spiritual discipline?

How would it be to prioritize the fundamental aspects of your life and to schedule your days around them, giving them the prime place in your agenda?

How can you choose wisely among all the possible things you could be doing, letting go of what is not essential? If you cram more and more big rocks into the glass jar of your life, the jar will eventually crack or shatter or the bottom will fall out.

Recently I had to make a decision about how to allocate my time this August. Mark and I were invited to co-teach a five-day doctoral course for Wisdom Graduate School near San José, California. The following week InterSangha meetings were scheduled in California for dharma teachers from all over the United States and Canada. A friend in northern California wanted Mark and me to visit her in between these events, and a Dharma buddy near Palo Alto asked if I would be a guest teacher for her Spanish-speaking meditation class. As I was weighing these options, Tom, a dear friend in Arizona, wrote that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and that he would like me to visit. At the same time, our dog Marisol started medication and a special diet for kidney disease, so Mark and I were reluctant to leave her for an extended period of time.

In daily meditation sessions, my mind was full of thoughts about how to orchestrate as much as possible without being away from home very long. While I was noting, “thinking, thinking,” I remembered a poem by Kaveri Patel called Thanking a Monkey:
There’s a monkey in my mind
Swinging on a trapeze,
Reaching back to the past
Or leaning into the future,
Never standing still.
Sometimes I want to kill
That monkey, shoot it square
Between the eyes, so I won’t
Have to think anymore
Or feel the pain of worry.

But today I thanked her
And she jumped down
Straight into my lap,
Trapeze still swinging
As we sat still.

In the stillness, I faced a lifelong tendency to exhaust my energy by cramming in too many activities. I realized that I felt tired just thinking about doing so much in California, and that I don’t have to accomplish it all in one lifetime. I connected with a wise intention to take care of myself and to create enough spaciousness in my life to bring fuller presence to what I choose to do.

Of all the tempting possibilities, teaching with Mark and visiting my ill friend emerged as the most important priorities. Sadly but realistically, I let go of participating the Spanish-speaking meditation group and in this year’s InterSangha meetings. Mark could visit our friend in northern California, while I stopped in Phoenix to be with Tom, before returning home to tend to our ailing dog.

Once I set wise priorities, my body and mind relaxed. My mason jar was comfortably filled with rocks. I no longer suffered from Zerrissenheit, and I could sense the pieces of my life weaving together into a harmonious pattern. Until the next time….

Ann Morrow Lindbergh urges us to “consciously encourage those pursuits which oppose the centrifugal forces of today.” As the Buddha taught, in order to awaken, we must swim against the collective current. With courage and clear intention, we can take charge of our time and assume responsibility for how we structure our lives. With resolve, we can reserve periods of solitude and turn inward to connect with wise intentions and priorities.