Having too much to do is our most common moan. We get overloaded, overworked, over everything and don’t see a way through.
Deb was just 18 when she attended her first Zen meditation retreat. “It was taught by a somewhat formidable Jiyu Kennet Roshi, a large Englishwoman in a floaty grey robe well established in the Zen tradition. As is normal on such retreats, meditation periods are interspersed with work, such as cleaning or gardening. I was given the job of planting out some new saplings.
“The problem was that winter had dragged on, the ground that I had to dig up was frozen hard, and it was starting to snow. I was overwhelmed trying to figure out how I could do what had to be done in the time available. I was in this freezing backyard, trying and failing to break ground, feeling like I was a hopeless failure, when Jiyu Roshi walked past.
“Roshi watched me trying and failing and getting more stressed out by the minute. ‘Stop’ she said. ‘Remember that you can never have too much to do. You just do what you are doing and when you have done that then you do the next thing.’
“I was immediately brought into the present moment from worrying about the future. I did as she told me, as we all could. I laid down my tools, took a deep breath and paused for a moment. Then I picked up just one tool and began just one activity. I had no time to finish it before the end of the work period but it no longer mattered. It could wait.”
The simplicity of that teaching has stayed with us both for many years, influencing moments when we are trying to meet a deadline or some other potentially stressful situation. Just do one thing at a time and when that is done then do the next thing.
This means that it is basically impossible to have too much to do. It shows us how, when we are stressed, we lose the simplicity of being present and dealing with what is in front of us with clarity rather than confusion. The underlining cause of chaos is stress: when the mind is scattered it easily becomes complicated; when it is at rest then anything is possible.
It also means we get to keep our sanity, take moments to breathe, and remember to smell the roses.