My secondary aspiration for 2014 was to recite gathas (short meditation poems relating to everyday activities) as a concrete way to integrate mindfulness into my daily life. While my original intention was to practice with one gatha per week for the whole year, I quickly realized I would need more time to integrate each gatha into my daily life.
In response I decided to turn this aspiration into a two-year project, and every other week incorporate a chapter from Ready for Anything, David Allen’s book on essential principles for productivity. Conveniently that book has 52 chapters, so along with the 52 gathas I was able to trade off one per week and complete half of each by the end of this year.
I found this trading-off approach allowed me to have a weekly practice that was rich without being overwhelming. These two practices also proved to be very complimentary: gathas supported my grounding in being while the productivity chapters supported my direct application to doing.
In this space I’ll share a few gathas and principles that impacted me the most:
Looking in the mirror
Awareness is a mirror,
reflecting the four elements.
Beauty is a heart that generates love,
and a mind that is open.
Every single day I look myself in the mirror. Often the first thoughts which come to mind are judgmental comments on my personal appearance. Using this daily gatha helped me to continually remind myself of the true nature of beauty. I have a desire to judge others less by their physical appearance, and I know the key to achieving this is to judge myself less. Saying these words out loud while looking myself in the eye is a powerful experience that I am grateful for.
Taking the first steps of the day
Walking on Earth
is a miracle!
Each mindful step
reveals the way.
There are rare moments when I am in touch with the reality that walking is a miracle. Historically it has been only when I am injured and realize that walking involves so many physical functions that I typically take for granted! Saying the first sentence reminds me to cultivate gratitude for my health.
The second sentence has been a handy way to remember that mindful steps allow “the way” to be revealed on its own. Thinking about the path ahead is not always helpful; often just taking care of this moment in its fullness reveals the next step.
I also made up a couple of my own gathas for activities I frequently engaged in.
Here is my Piano Gatha
Resting on the keys I breathe.
I recall my intention to play,
allowing music to express my love.
For those interested in starting their own gatha practice, here are some reflections on the process that may be helpful:
-Remembering that I forgot to say a gatha is just as important as saying it. The intention for this exercise is not to reach some standard of perfection, but rather to bring joy into daily activities and smile when I have forgotten (which happens every day).
-I used the gathas in Present Moment, Wonderful Moment as a starting place, and tweaked most of them to suit my particular situation and need. I treated each gatha as a laboratory to experiment with moving towards the essence of what I wanted to practice with.
-There are a number of morning gathas, and reciting them helped slow down the rush of my morning routine. It was surprising to see how many activities I would typically do on auto-pilot within the first few minutes of my day. Waking up, walking to bathroom, turning on the light, going to the bathroom, washing my hands, and looking in mirror is already 6 gathas!
David Allen is one of my personal/professional heroes, and his book Ready for Anything offers beautifully succinct principles on productivity. Rather than just re-stating the principles or attempting to summarize them, here I will share some of the most helpful takeaways I had from working with them:
The Four Roles
In order to properly collect, process, organize, review and do all the “stuff” that appears in my life, I’ve found it helpful to distinguish between four ways I can be:
- Artist: Capturing every possible thing
- Executive: Processing what each thing means and what I’m going to commit to do
- Manager: Organizing & Reviewing decisions about what do when
- Worker: Doing what needs to be done
My mood often dictates which one of those roles I’m most likely to enjoy at any given moment, and knowing this helps me decide on a daily basis which activities I want to engage in. A few examples of how I put this into practice:
-At the beginning of each week I find it helpful to put on my ‘manager’ hat and sketch out what I’d like to accomplish that week. I try to not re-negotiate this more than once per week; otherwise I can spend most of my week thinking about work versus doing it.
-I do ‘executive’ processing, such as reading emails, at very specific times during the day. I have learned to avoid checking email at night, as unresolved situations can remain as an open loop in my brain, contributing to less sound sleep.
-I save some ‘worker’ doing tasks specifically for when I’m in transit, as I can usually only muster a certain type of dull focus in such environments.
A constant balancing act I face is that of freedom and control. For long-term sustainability they need each other: too much freedom and you’re lost, too much control and you’re stuck.
David states that concentration is the key to power, in physics and in life, and cooperation is the lubricant for the efficient flow of that energy. I found this distinction to be a helpful framework for understanding power, and would sum it up using the following parallels:
The generation of power requires: control / concentration / focus / determination
The use of that power requires: freedom / mindfulness / awareness / acceptance
The words for each requirement seem to naturally balance themselves and have served as helpful reminders for me when I am feeling lost or stuck and looking to re-energize.
The Magical Mundane
Thich Nhat Hanh often shares that a concrete way to improve wellbeing is to celebrate neutral sensations and see them as positive. For example, this morning you likely woke up without a toothache. For most people this not a cause for celebration. But for those who have just had their wisdom teeth taken out, a mouth that is not sore is indeed a positive thing. So, the logic goes, why wait until you have pain to celebrate not being in pain?
David Allen approaches this idea by advising people who want to be more productive to start by doing things on their to-do list they view as mundane, such as cleaning a garage. When unfinished items are brought to attention and completed they free up mental energy that was previously unavailable. Unfulfilled commitments we make to ourselves have a way of bringing us down, even if they seem unimportant and not worth paying attention to.
The practice is to creatively work with neutral/mundane items in ways that allow them to bring us joy. To quote David: “The mundane is not a substitute for the sublime. It’s just a secret passageway to it.” Or, as Thomas Edison put it: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Looking back over the year I am very grateful to both Thich Nhat Hanh and David Allen for their wisdom, and their generosity in sharing that wisdom publicly. I will continue this gatha / principles practice in 2015!
My third and final aspiration for 2014 (investigating the link between decision-making, rumination, and depression) is currently a source of rich exploration, and I will write more about it in the coming year.