this article was originally published as my Holistic Outlook column in The Times Herald Record. link to original article here
You have one. I have one. Scribbled on scraps of paper, tapped on a smart phone or kept in your head, the to-do list hovers like a mean and unfair boss, threatening with the knowledge that we are never completely free — for we are never, ever, truly done.
What exhausting lives we live — constantly driven by voices telling us we can’t rest, for there is always more to do. And there is.
That’s the sad, crazy truth of our lives. With jobs, kids, parents, homes and pets, not to mention shopping, eating, cleaning and laundry, it’s a wonder we aren’t simply all spinning like tops. And we collude, checking our smart phones and laptops incessantly.
Sure, it’s good to stay in touch, but sometimes we just need a break. Vacation in paradise? Oh, that would be nice, and I have no doubt that you’ve earned it. But I think a vacation, though somewhere on your to-do list, isn’t in the top 10, is it?
Chronic stress isn’t merely annoying. It’s exhausting and debilitating. It increases inflammation, and inflammation contributes to health problems both chronic and acute, from weight gain to indigestion to heart disease.
The good news is that there are ways to work with your to-do list and lower your stress, helping you stay sane, healthy and even more productive.
Let it go
So often we worry about events long past, or far in a future we can’t truly foresee, or about things that are beyond our control. If we let go of these, and simply focus on what we need to carry today, our burdens are usually bearable.
Be clear and realistic about what must get done today. Don’t be tyrannized by items that can wait until tomorrow or next month. Know you will give them your attention when the time comes, and don’t let them bully you now.
Worrying is unproductive: It has no practical benefits.
At the end of the day, acknowledge that you did the best you could, and let yourself off the hook for anything still lingering. Consciously close down your list for the night. Allow yourself to have an evening free of active worry, and don’t take it to bed with you. This simple practice can change the quality of your life.
Meditation: Easier than you think
“I have so much to do today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.” — Gandhi
Meditation is like taking a mini vacation, a quick “reset” for your brain, body and nervous system. In our culture, most people do best with structured meditation, rather than trying to “empty” the mind.
Here are three meditation options to try throughout the day. One to three minutes at a time is great.
SLOW IT DOWN
You can do a meditation practice as simple as keeping a long, even count for each inhale and each exhale.
Try counting to six for your inhale, then six for your exhale. It should be easy, not forced or strained. You may find your breathing slows naturally as you practice.
LOVING KINDNESS MEDITATION
Say each phrase on an exhale, repeating each verse as many times as you need.
The first time through, say each phrase for yourself; then say each phrase for a loved one; then for someone you don’t know well who needs it; lastly, for someone who is difficult for you. Always start with yourself. It is traditional to use the same three people for a length of time in your daily practice.
The four phrases are:
“May I (you) be filled with loving kindness.” “May I be well.” “May I be peaceful and at ease.” “May I be happy.”
COUNTING THE BREATHS
Focus on your breathing, and nothing else.
See if you can keep this singular focus for a count of 10 breaths. It sounds easy, but isn’t.
Each time you realize you’ve lost focus — and you will — simply bring yourself back to your breath and begin again, without blame or self-judgment.