One day the heavens parted, and it happened while I sat at my desk.
I booted up the computer in my office at home and prepared for a day of work as a freelance writer.
Each morning my habit was the same: review my calendar, check my to-do lists, set priorities, start work. And usually I completed those tasks with robot-like efficiency.
I faced this particular day, however, with uncharacteristic gloom.
It wasn’t that I dreaded work. In fact, I was editing a book manuscript for one of my clients and it was coming together beautifully.
Rather, it was all those lists.
I began with lists of appointments, with each one dutifully noted in two places–a daily calendar and a monthly calendar.
Then there were lists of things to do, all arranged by category – personal, professional, financial, family, health, recreation – and related sub-categories. Within each sub-category list, items were ranked by priority – A, B, and C. And then within each of those lists came items ranked by sub-priority – A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, B3, C1, C2, C3, and so on.
Wow, I thought, I need to make a list of my lists so I can keep track of them all.
Maybe the whole system of time management, in fact, has a crack in its foundation. Maybe all the time management techniques I used were part of the problem — not the solution.
I knew there had to be a better way.
Time management and meditation in tension
Searching out the possible flaws in time management practices, I began with the term time management itself.
To me, the very word management came to denote an adversarial relationship with time. My job was to reign in some dark force that could spiral out of control at any second.
This fear, I speculated, drives much of what we call time management.
To explore this notion further, I looked for practices that offered an alternative to management and all its synonyms: controlling, commanding, enforcing, judging, directing, analyzing, and the like.
I didn’t have to look far. I’d taken yoga classes and learned vipassana, an ancient practice known more widely today as mindfulness meditation.
In addition, I’d read some Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist scriptures. Returning to some of these sacred texts, I found passages that spoke with new clarity and power in light of my struggles with time management.
The piece that struck me most was a poem by Gendun Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist, including these lines:
Happiness cannot be found through great effort and willpower but is already present, in open relaxation and letting go.
Don’t strain yourself; there is nothing to do or undo.
These ideas seemed to come from another universe — one that had nothing to do with the literature on time management. Gendun Rinpoche raised questions that I couldn’t answer, or even ask, within the paradigm of time management:
- How could I reconcile my endless lists of goals with the “open relaxation” and “letting go”?
- If there’s “nothing to do or undo,” then why continue to write to-do lists?
- What happens to time management in light of teachings from the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao te Ching, and other sacred texts?
- Would a Zen master buy a Daytimer?
- Did Gandhi write to-do lists?
The great spiritual texts tell us that happiness is immediate; peace is already present. Enlightenment is here, now.
This idea comes to us from both Eastern and Western sources.
In The Gospel According to Thomas, Jesus says that the “kingdom of heaven is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it.”
An old Zen saying says essentially the same thing: “If you can’t find enlightenment where you’re standing, where do you expect to go in search of it?”
Immediately I wondered what would happen if we brought this perspective to time — not as an abstraction, but as an insight that penetrates to the heart and gut.
This is our possibility, I reasoned: We could bring a sense of timelessness to time management.
We could bring eternity to our to-do lists.
We could abandon self-improvement and rest in the Self – our true nature.
Insights From a Rotting Corpse
I kept reading, combing the classics of time management and spirituality for a link between the two sets of practices.
Then I found Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive by Larry Rosenberg, a vipassana teacher. In it, Rosenberg describes a three-month retreat he did in a small Mexican village with Badrayana, a meditation teacher from India.
One night during that retreat, Badrayana asked Larry to drop everything he was doing and come sit with a dead body. Someone had gotten drunk, fallen in a nearby ocean bay, and drowned.
The townspeople had put the body in a box with ice. Beyond that, they would not touch it. They asked Badrayana and Larry to stay with the corpse until the dead man’s relatives and a priest could arrive from Mexico City.
Badrayana jumped at the chance. He saw this as an opportunity to do an ancient meditation exercise – contemplation of death. Buddhist monks traditionally do this practice while sitting near decomposing corpses in open burial grounds.
So there the two of them sat, meditating through the night in the presence of this bloated, malodorous corpse. When Rosenberg confessed his fear and resistance to this assignment, Badrayana just said, “OK. Sit with it.”
Recalling the experience, Larry wrote:
Through the night, my teacher would periodically remind me that I was not exempt from this lawfulness, that if something appears, it must also disappear, that this dead body was not some kind of chance occurrence, that it was something to which we are all subject, that it’s the great leveler. And he would remind me again and again to reflect on this corpse as my true teacher; to see it as if it were my own body….
Then came the lesson that he drew:
Deepening our understanding of death can radically affect how we live. Priorities can change and we may not have as much of an investment in an imagined future – perhaps less accumulation of things; perhaps less of an obsession with unattainable security; perhaps less of an obsession with “becoming someone,” not so much living for the “future,” because there isn’t one…. When we shine the light of death on the yearning for power, fame, and money, they tend to lose some of their magnetic pull.
That passage from Larry’s book was a gift.
Larry raised the possibility that meditation — by shining the light of death on all phenomena — could illuminate my relationship to time management. The whole process of setting goals for “power, fame, and money” could be transcended.
How would time, money, and success appear to a person who’d watched corpses decompose?
This became my operating question.
Ultimately I discovered answers, but not from thinking or from reading. Instead, solutions issued from unexpected sources — hatha yoga and meditation.
How thought creates suffering
Once I worked 19 hours straight to meet a deadline for a writing project — a classic all-nighter and then some. Other than an occasional five-minute break to stretch or snack, I sat welded to my seat, pounding a computer keyboard and staring at the monitor.
At random moments during the night, I monitored my body sensations with non-judgmental awareness.
Often I noticed a slight feeling of heaviness in my arms or around my eyes. Of course, there were many more sensations as well — some pleasant, some unpleasant, and many that were neutral. But none of them presented any real problem in the moment.
I also remember what I thought at several points throughout this marathon work session: This is strange. I feel OK. I really should be suffering more.
At these moments, I was not so fortunate. My mind snapped into action. My thoughts raced and turned suddenly toxic, manufacturing a litany of judgments:
- How did I get myself into this situation?
- Why do I always get myself into crunches like this?
- What if this happens again?
With thoughts like these, I added something unnecessary to my bare sensations.
In those moments, and in only those moments, did I suffer.
On the mat, making peace with time
Hatha yoga and meditation deepen our understanding of this relationship between thought and suffering. We learn that suffering begins and ends in the mind, correlating directly with the presence or absence of our mental commentary.
When we’re anxious, afraid, or angry, thoughts come fast — a cascading stream of unpleasant memories or dire predictions for the future. But if we persist at hatha yoga and meditation, we find that the mind reaches a still point.
When we learn to stop fueling thoughts and simply observe them as they arise and pass away, our frenetic mental activity starts to slow down. Fewer thoughts crop up. The space between thoughts widens. Eventually, space predominates.
This is the state that Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, described as “evenness of mind” — the tranquility of mental stillness.
When thoughts slow to a crawl, what we’re left with is simple body sensation: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and the sense of touch. And at this level of experience, suffering starts to release its tight grasp on us.
Fulfillment as full feeling
Fulfillment is simply allowing ourselves to accept any feeling that arises, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant.
Fulfillment does not depend on any particular feeling. Fulfillment is simply the full experience of any feeling, pleasant or unpleasant, as we let it arise and pass without thoughts of attachment or aversion.
This is what we do in yoga and meditation.
In meditation we see for ourselves that all mental and emotional states arise and pass away, moment by moment. We observe that “everything vanishes and reappears, magically, again and again, time without end,” as Gendun Rinpoche wrote.
We also discover this while we’re on the yoga mat. We stop clinging to pleasant states and simply let them go. We stop resisting unpleasant states, let them wash over us, and return to the asana (yoga posture) that we’re doing in the present moment.
In the process, we discover a source of tranquility that stands in the midst of change, a peace that does not depend on external conditions — the first taste of an unshakeable serenity.
We give up the illusion that fulfillment results from setting goals and acting with ruthless efficiency to achieve them.
Instead, we discover serenity as our baseline state.
Yoga and meditation take us to the world beyond time. By dwelling each day in that world, no matter how briefly, we can return to the world of clocks, calendars, goals, and to-do lists without feeling trapped by them.
We can move between the world of timelessness and the world of time management without struggle or suffering.
Knowing that fulfillment exists prior to setting or meeting any goal, we’re free to live with simplicity, grace, and ease.
Seeing that we already are complete, we can stop trying to become complete.
Our futile quest to produce happiness by setting and achieving goals is what keeps us endlessly busy in the first place.
Now we can shrink our to-do lists. We can pare our schedule down to the most essential activities. We’re left with less to do and more time to get it done.
A yoga practice that allows us to enter the present moment via the body reminds us that fulfillment lies outside the whole realm of planning and action.
Knowing this, we can reduce the overall scope of our activities. We can see the activities of daily life simply as a ground for spiritual practice, play, and pure celebration.
In the bodily experience of timelessness and fulfillment lies a path to peace with time.
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