For the past several years, Trudy Goodman (above left), founder and guiding teacher of InsightLA, and author and meditation teacher, Kate Lila Wheeler (above right), have taught an annual retreat at InsightLA in Santa Monica. This year’s retreat, which will be held Mar. 10-11, is called “The Deeper Intent of the Heart.” Here, Trudy and Kate discuss one of its themes: being more at ease in and attuned with our busy world.
Trudy Goodman: Do you think that people these days seem more and more harried and frenetic?
Kate Lila Wheeler: Yes. I’m sure you’ve heard the statistic that in Paleolithic societies, hunter-gatherers worked about fifteen hours per week. Forbes magazine quoted New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s usual commencement address to graduates that “It never hurts to be the first one in in the morning — and the last one to leave.” There are lots of forces in this economy, with the still uncertain job market, as well as the well-entrenched work ethic that is still strong in Western society, which make it feel immoral or frightening to do anything but work. Yet Forbes said that there are diminishing returns for working more than 65 hours per week, even if we just look at the work itself, a loss of efficiency after a certain point.
Trudy: In some circles, being busy and unavailable has become a measure of one’s worth. I remember once I answered my landline and the caller expressed surprise that I would take the time to do that. Similarly, a quiet restaurant mustn’t be any good, so the owners rip out the curtains, carpets, and anything that might absorb sound — so that the place will be noisy and seem more crowded, and the intense atmosphere will be saying, This is the place to be, we are a happening place, everyone is here, or should be…I definitely notice when someone or somewhere is calm and quiet, radiating peace and stillness.It’s like a cool breeze on a hot day — I think that’s one definition of nirvana.
Kate: So we’re not just talking about a full schedule, we’re pointing to a mental quality — a lack of anxiety.
Trudy: Knowing how to calm down in any context sounds like a tall order! Luckily each time we sit or walk or do whatever we’re doing with the intention to be present and release everything that came before, and whatever may follow, we’re actually developing this skill. Every moment we choose to be here, we’re forming the habit of showing up for our life. This, from the most important psychology text ever, perhaps — William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890):
It is very important that (we) realize the importance of habit…. We speak, it is true, of good habits and of bad habits; but, when people use the word ‘habit,’ in the majority of instances it is a bad habit which they have in mind. They talk of the smoking-habit and the swearing-habit and the drinking-habit, but not of the abstention-habit or the moderation-habit or the courage-habit. But the fact is that our virtues are habits as much as our vices. All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits—practical, emotional, and intellectual —systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.
Kate: Luckily the habit of being present takes no time at all — you do it in an instant! So there is nothing inherently wrong with having a full calendar. It may not be desirable or necessary to be totally unbusy and clear out our schedule entirely in order to find peace and happiness. But being present means being able to be nonreactive no matter what’s happening — I think that’s one of the most important habits we can have. It’s connecting with ourselves that creates that calm space. We are the ones who get lost when we allow our mind to get swept up into the outer rush of things. We lose connection with our bodies, our emotions–living in a state of anxiety about the past or future, thinking we can’t rest before completing all our tasks.
At the same time, I also believe it’s important to create islands of time in our schedules, when we actually are less busy and we can let our bodies and minds slow down. Some of our processes are slower — such as the creative process, reaching higher levels of skill in playing an instrument or a sport, understanding subjects, or getting to know another person. Profound psychological changes are also mostly slow to evolve. Things that take time to occur can be impeded by constantly rushing about. The habit of being present supports us to open up at a deeper level, and enhances our lives. And the habit of doing what looks like “nothing” for periods of time each day can be one of the happiest, best gifts we give ourselves. Doesn’t that sound shocking?
Trudy: Hearing that, I can see you as a dharma pirate climbing aboard a good dutiful ship, not to steal any cargo, but to subvert the serious attempt to get to where it’s going – a jolly pirate taking over and saying, Hey mates, we’re not going anywhere! We’re just going to ride the waves, smell the salt air, write in our journals, play music, just BE…and see which way the (inner and outer) wind is blowing, before continuing on…. Was it you who told me that a big part of writing is not writing? I do know that creativity requires times of just resting in doing nothing special, so that we have the space to tune in to the deeper intent of the heart, to hear what arises from the stillness… for it’s not the stillness itself that we’re seeking, but the ability to know and recognize what comes out of the stillness.
I quoted William James earlier because I think humans have always struggled to find peace. I like to find echoes of the Eastern teachings that have been kept alive for thousands of years in our Western wisdom traditions. What you said about the habit of being present reminded me of this sad quote from Darwin — if only some benign pirate had clambered into his study so he’d create some space for himself to just BE and appreciate life, this endless dimension dynamic life we all share:
Up to the age of thirty or beyond it, poetry of many kinds gave me great pleasure; and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that pictures formerly gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry. I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music . . . My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts; but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive . . . If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept alive through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness.