Is it possible to feel good at the same time as getting shit done?
This New Year I stood round a bonfire at a wonderful Buddhist retreat in the English countryside and made an intention to ‘combine doing with love’ in 2019.
While I can tap into a great sense of love and well-being when I meditate on the cushion or dance to a great piece of music, I tend to separate my ‘love and goodwill’ time from my ‘get shit done’ time. There’s ‘work’ which needs to be got through, and then there’s ‘pleasure’ which is all too often, deferred.
A split-personality society
There’s a long tradition of this kind of split in our world, no doubt based on hundreds of years of capitalism and Puritan work ethic. We’ve all heard stories of ruthless business people and politicians who go to church on a Sunday and save up their love and compassion for those two hours a week. Bertolt Brecht’s Good Woman of Setzuan features a woman forced to adopt a split personality by the ruthless pressures of the capitalist system. But even those working for social good can split off those parts of themselves, getting so caught up in the urgency of the cause that they sacrifice their own well-being and that of those around them.
But if we can only be truly nice to ourselves and others on the days a week when we’re not busy working, what kind of society does that entail?
Breaking free of the split
I don’t want to follow this long destructive tradition. I’m beginning to believe that being able to breathe and love myself and others in the midst of life’s fire-fighting is potentially one of the most radical things I can do to make a better world – for me and those around me, and hopefully wider afield.
But it’s a long-ingrained habit to defer love and joy. Because I’m curious and engaged in the world, I always have a list of shit that needs doing. All too often, as my time gets squeezed and I’m trying to get through the list, the love element disappears.
I defer it – I’ll be nice to myself or allow myself to feel good once this job’s done. Sometimes, I even make my bladder wait until I get the damn thing done. My determination and focus helps me achieve, but at what cost to my well-being and those around me?
It sounds so simple and obvious a change to make but it can be very hard for me to do, especially when I have pressing deadlines and too much work in my day job. And outside work, I’m involved in many different activities.
Ways to escape
I know that in order to ‘do’ with love I’m going to have to find a way to be more aware in the moment; to say ‘no’ more often; to delegate more often; to trust more often; and to get better at reclaiming my time so I feel I have more of it.
I came across this wonderful quote by David Whyte (his book Consolations) that nails the conundrum:
“Rest is the conversation between what we love to do and how we love to be”
Feeling irritable and joyless is going to be my cue to remember a great ‘mantra’ for myself:
- Right task? (Does this task really need doing?)
- Right person? (Am I the right person for this task? Would it be better done by someone else?)
- Right time? (Is this the right time to do it?)
- Right place? (Is this the best location to do this task?)
I came across this ‘mantra’ years ago and it’s just popped back into my mind as a useful tool. I’m now trying to use my mindfulness practice to be more aware of: what does my body and soul need in this moment and can I give it that, if only in some small way?
One month in, I’m already noticing a difference. While it still seems counter-intuitive and inefficient to pause right in the heat of trying to solve a problem, I’m noticing that by cutting myself some slack (giving myself some love) I’ve often been able to find a better and more satisfying solution.
Interesting and yet quite conceptually unusual to me. The rhythm of life, getting things done, is my pleasure.
I positively enjoy ironing, gardening, working in the shop, sorting out a cupboard, doing a supermarket shop etc. Doing anything else, reading, going to the cinema, going to zumba…have almost equal status.
I enjoy clearing the decks, making a dent in a to do list and then thinking what I might do with the left-over time.
I have noticed that I have difficulty scheduling holidays…and a week away is MORE than enough. It feels like ‘work’ organising a theatre trip or a few days off (often many arrangements must be arranged in order to do) … so getting things done is the easier option. It requires no scheduling.
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I understand what you’re saying but I don’t think being psychologically split is a bad thing, in fact I think it’s necessary, though not in the way you talk about of people going to church on a Sunday and then acting like selfish automatons the rest of the week. I think we have to approach changing the world and surviving within it (pursuing careers etc) as two separate things. I don’t think its possible to change the system from within (corporate social responsibility is an oxymoron in my opinion) and trying to do so is a colossal waste of energy.
So we do need to be two separate people, private and public. I wrote about this so time ago with reference to the writer Dan Hind (whose definitely worth reading).
‘The philosophical keystone that Hind makes use of is the work of the eighteenth century German thinker, Immanuel Kant. Kant said that our accustomed definitions of ‘private’ and ‘public’ need to be reversed. When ensconced in any institutional role, as employees, we reason ‘privately’, said Kant. It is only when we are free as individuals to think, unencumbered by any institutional ties, that we can hope to reason ‘publicly’.
It is Hind’s insight that, unless we are independently wealthy, we cannot hope to escape from this dual nature. “We do not have to renounce our private identities as employees,” he writes. “But we must recognise that the sum of our private identities does not constitute the full expression or our humanity.” There is a permanent tension, Hind says, between the requirements of our economic role and a wider commitment to an accurate description of the world and the possibility of radically altered institutional arrangements.’
Doubtless many people will disagree but it’s the conclusion I’ve come to
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This is really interesting. I followed the Dan Hind link. Still pondering the psychological split and how it relates to my theme. Maybe being aware that we have to split ourselves to cope in our society is key to having an empowered relationship to it. In my case, I’ve been socialised into ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’ – no doubt due to hundreds of years of capitalist work ethic and I’ve found that it’s not a useful or nurturing way to exist full time.I’m trying to ‘be’ more of the time.
Your blog definitley rings true for me! What i find hardest is knowing if i’m stressed and want to change things because i want to be true to myself or is it because i want to run from the stress & responsibilty – it’s hard to know the difference! I do know that after a weekend or walk outdoors and good times (like our weekend in Ramsgate) i felt much more grounded and able to feel what’s right. So balance, time in nature and good conversation with friends is not optional – it’s essential to wellbeing and getting shit done better and more easily
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I have two simple questions that help me decide where to put my energy. First ‘Do I want to?’ If I don’t, then the second vital question: ‘Do I need to?’ It’s surprisingly easy to end up doing something we don’t want or do or need to do! We get caught in a habit or are listening to some old voice in our heads telling us ‘you should!’.
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