March 10, 2013

Dying to Relax

One of my mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) students has three kids, a husband, and a demanding job. On occasion, she stops at a cafe on her way home from work to have a cup of tea and take a 30-minute breather before launching into her evening of dinner, homework, lunches, and bedtimes. When she makes the stop, she notices that she feels relaxed and grounded afterwards, and that she's more patient and present with her husband and kids. Despite the obvious benefits of the cafe pit stop, she hasn't made it a regular habit; it's too hard to justify "doing nothing" for half an hour when she could be completing one more task at work or getting a head start on dinner before her husband gets home. It feels indulgent, selfish, and like a waste of time.

This client isn't the only person who finds it hard to be unproductive for a few minutes, or who feels like they simply don't have time to relax. Friends, patients, and MBSR students struggle to find a few minutes per day to breathe, meditate, read, or simply be. So do I. How can we spend fifteen minutes sitting quietly and watching our breath when we have emails to send, texts to answer, and dishes to wash? How can we read a novel when we have a backlog of articles to read for work and the laundry isn't done? Not only is there a lot to do, but often each item on our to-do lists feels absolutely urgent--as if it needs to be checked off right this minute.

Even though we intuitively know that down time is good for us, many of us are unaccustomed to being unproductive, and find relaxing difficult to prioritize. When you're struggling between sending one more email and having a quiet cup of tea before bed, or between your morning meditation and getting to work a few minutes early, consider the following:  

a) Non-productivity is productive. The minutes you "waste" relaxing or meditating return to you several-fold in productivity. The relationships between relaxation and productivity and between meditation and productivity are well established--but research aside, most of us have experienced how much better we work when we're relaxed, when we're well rested, when we're able to focus. This is one reason that successful companies like Google, Sun Life, Ford, General Mills, and Twitter have established mindfulness training programs for employees.

b) Dying to relax. In his book Wherever You Go, There You Are (WYGTYA; see right sidebar), MBSR founder Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to meditation as "dying" to the world for a few minutes. He reminds us that if we died right this minute, our personal agenda would dissolve immediately. That is, some of our projects would be absorbed by others, but most of our oh-so-important goals and must-be-done-right-this-second tasks would simply evaporate. JKZ says "So if this is true, maybe you don't need to worry about it in any absolute way. Maybe you don't need to make one more phone call right now, even if you think you do. Maybe you don't need to read one more thing or do one more errand. Stopping for a few minutes--dying on purpose--to the rush of time, you free yourself to actually have time for the present. You become more alive now, and once you do decide to go again, it's more deliberate, more vivid, richer."

I love this! A friend recently reminded me of this passage from WYGTYA, and I used it the other night: I was getting ready for bed after an evening of baking, and as I turned out the kitchen light long past my bedtime, I noticed that there were still crumbs on the kitchen table. As I picked up the dishcloth, I stopped to ask myself what would happen if I died and the table didn't get a second wipe. Answer: nothing. Result: I put down the dishcloth and got in bed. Reminder: sometimes you just don't need to do one more thing.

Do the ideas of productivity via relaxation or meditation, and dying to our responsibilities mean we should all spend our days relaxing, meditating, and not answering emails or cleaning up after ourselves? That our personal agendas aren't important? No, of course not. But next time you're considering eating lunch at your desk, remember that taking a real lunch break isn't a waste of time. Next time you're sending work emails from your phone while you brush your teeth before bed, consider that managing your inbox at 11pm might not be as urgent as it feels.

NB: If you want to try adding ten minutes of mindfulness meditation to your day but aren't sure how, I recommend this free and easy guided program. 

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