De-cluttering Our ‘TO DO’ Lists: Honouring Responsibility Over Obligation

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WHAT TO DO?

What do you have to do today? Really. Look it over. Whether you have an actual list in front of you or just a stack of tasks gathered in your mind, have a good look at it. Ask yourself; is all of this necessary? Is any of it necessary? Who says so? Even if that voice in your head barks back ‘I say so!’, inquire. Who is that voice? Is it really you? Or might it just be a collection of expectations and obligations that a life of conditioning has imprinted upon you? This may be a frightening thought, that some entity other than ourselves is driving our minds. But this ‘conditioning’ need not be seen as intentionally oppressive, as if some evil perpetrator were sitting in a wingback chair, laughing, hands held together in a pyramid, fingers dancing back and forth while we silly mortals fall prey to some grand evil scheme.

SEEING THROUGH OUR CONDITIONING

Conditioning has just happened. This is simply how life has developed so far. It’s a part of our growth. And not all conditioning is bad. But when we are blind to it, it drives us. It fills up our ‘to do’ lists with endless things that we feel we must do. The extent to which we can see this conditioning at work is the extent to which we can become free of it. After all, it is in the nature of a mistake to disappear once we discover it. And then we can watch our ‘to do’ lists thin out significantly. They may go blank altogether. And they may remain that way for a while – empty. And that’s ok. After running a marathon, whether finishing first or last, it’s reasonable to take a moment to gather our breath, maybe have a sip of water and walk it off. Similarly, when we wake up to see we’ve been running in circles for most of our lives, we are permitted to take a bit of a breather, to walk it off. We may feel aimless for a while. (We’ll certainly appear it!) This is ok, too. Gradually, we can begin introducing new items to our ‘to do’ lists, when we feel up to it, and especially when we feel inspired to act from a place of conviction – a place of deep truth. We are no longer merely following commands, but seeing action arise from our natural impulse for love. We do what we want to do, what we love to do. We can begin developing ‘to do’ lists with intention. It’s our inattention that has kept us spinning in hamster wheels for so long. It’s time to rise and shine.

CLARIFYING OUR UNDERSTANDING

What I am talking about is a subtle but vital distinction which can revolutionize our lives. This is the fine line between obligation and responsibility. But what’s the difference? How do we discern which is which? Sometimes it’s a razor’s edge. And it’s more often not even about what we do, but how we do it. Are we doing something because we have to or because we want to? It is not always so simple, though this can be a good place to begin our inquiry. Fortunately, for fuzzier matters, a bit of patient reflection can help us understand which voice we should be honouring.

So what is obligation? Well, to feel obliged to do something seems to imply some sense of pressure, some external force, whether from the expectations of our family, our work, or society at large. These are tasks we would seldom take upon ourselves to perform. But responsibility is literally the ability to respond. Response-ability.  It’s all right there. This is an uprising of our truest self, a deep moral sense of right action, appropriate to the moment. And it always comes from within, expressing itself in a completely unique way through each of us. Still, it can be difficult to strain through the many voices chattering inside of us to figure out where each voice is coming from, where they would have us go and what they would have us do.

TRIMMING DOWN OUR BIG ‘TO DO’s

This is where thinning out our ‘to do’ lists can be so helpful. It’s a two-way street. It may feel a bit scary, at first, and maybe even a little crazy, but by stripping away our excess ‘busy-ness’ – if only for a few days, allowing ourselves to breathe and relax – we can begin to see what is truly important in our lives. It will emerge all on its own. And we can learn to prioritize more wisely. As we do this, we may hear old voices rising up inside, telling us we are letting people down, or letting ourselves down. But if we can weather this storm, perhaps we can stop worrying about ‘let downs’ and learn to let up and let go. Maybe we’ll realize that what we want is not what we need, and what we need is not what we want. Facing this can be disorienting. But if we can exercise a bit of bravery – just enough to take a small step out of our comfortable routines, letting go of our ‘to do’ lists for a while – perhaps we can become more of who we truly are, surrendering the rest, and ending up a greater help to ourselves and others, growing and serving in ways far beyond what we had ever imagined possible.

TAKE A CHANCE – RELAX

Why not try letting go? Maybe all you have to lose is all you need to lose to be truly free. Take a deep breath in and let go of everything else. Exhale and feel the release spreading through your entire body. This is our natural state. Inner peace is our effortless inheritance. There is nothing it asks us ‘to do’ but let it in. So be still. Go deep. And ask yourself, what do I really have to do today?

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The Good of the Woods

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“In the woods is perpetual youth.” Ralph Waldo Emerson shared this nugget of subtle wisdom in his 1836 essay, Nature. Originally published anonymously, Nature introduced a new view of life to the Western World. I feel it to be a view we could benefit from as the frantic pace of modern life reaches fever pitch. Nature is precisely where we can discover this wisdom for ourselves – as if for the first time, we can see our unity anew, renewing our purpose and our passion.

Nature is not outside of us, and yet it is all around. We are not separate from it. The same life in every tree branch and blade of grass is alive in us. If only for a moment we allowed ourselves to fall quiet and observe life with a calm mind we would see very clearly the singular intelligence of nature at work within and around us. But we need not run off to Alaska to connect with this force. We can see nature in the city, too, though the speed and noise of urban life often make it more difficult.

Nature moves through cycles. Many we can see. Some we speculate. Others we intuit. Despite our discovery of countless cycles and patterns in nature, I sense we are still guided by far larger cycles than we can see, the magnitude of which we can scarcely conceive. These wider realities may well exist beyond any scale or reason. Though many of us seem to have glimpsed the infinite potential of the source – life’s creative centre – and some attempt to express it, the deepest essence of life remains ever-elusive, immune to scrutiny. But that’s neither here nor there.

Nature’s cycles honour the law of balance, expanding to contract, rising to fall. Similarly, we find ourselves alternating between extremes, in equal need of work and rest. The manic pace of our society demands balance, and many are now awakening to its necessity. On one hand, racing alongside the arrow of time, we are most definitely on the edge of an ever-breaking wave, endlessly evolving, pushing forever onward. But we cannot deny that seasons peak. Nothing grows without eventual decay. Nature shows us this in our solstices and equinoxes. But it is difficult to sense these shifts while we are in the immensity of their midst. The folly of falling empires – as all fall – has been to project an endless reign, blurring the dual truths of now and forever. But eternity has nothing to do with time. Time is temporal, temporary. It comes and goes. Real life is always now.

It is nearly impossible to have perspective from within a picture. But we keep trying to capture the outer frame, convinced it exists. On one level, turning points are undeniable. But beyond all of these cycles and shifts, there seems to be something constant – a background of unchanging presence. What else could register change? Perhaps the calm, detached and unbiased clarity developed through meditation can allow for a greater understanding of wider frames of existence, perceiving shifts as they are taking place.

I recall reading several years ago about a significant global threshold being crossed – the human population had become more urban than rural. Within a few months of this news I read also that more than half of the world owned cell phones. I felt these turning points to be connected, and indicative of a massive global shift, the repercussions of which would surely be felt, however subtly. I thought it was strange that we could have pin-pointed these tipping points so precisely. I wondered if such a critical mass could even be so tidy and finite. Either way, I found myself keen to leave the city, more interested in the whisper of a silent breeze than the ongoing honking of horns. So I headed for the woods to become an earnest student of nature. It taught me a lot.

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Caterpillars consume. That is how they spend their entire lives. They have a voracious appetite, which eventually turns inward. After enough consumption the caterpillar begins digesting itself. The butterfly that becomes from within them is born of their life of endless eating. The life of the butterfly is comparatively brief, though beautiful. Butterflies flit about very lightly, drinking a bit of nectar or tree sap, occasionally taking nourishment from dung, rotting fruit or decaying flesh. It is an incredible example of transformation. I imagine the butterfly’s perspective must be quite a shift from the slow and heavy life of a caterpillar.

Looking at it, I sense a parallel between the caterpillar/butterfly life-cycle and that of humanity. Our endless consumption of oil and sugar, among various other vices, will eventually leave us with little else to consume but ourselves. We have been acting like caterpillars for quite some time now. I wonder when we will find ourselves in a collective cocoon, digesting our culture’s fat stores? What will our flowering into butterflies be like? Has it happened before?

Much like sugar speeds us up, packing a condensed punch of energy, I feel oil has similarly sped up our collective evolution. With the rapid extraction and expenditure of energy that has been stored in our planet for millions of years, we have accelerated our civilization so wildly that we are only slowly coming to terms with it. As with any form of growth, experiencing growing pains is common, along with often sloppy leaps forward. It takes time to come to terms with these changes and to level out, eventually gaining clearer perspective in hindsight.

So perhaps Western civilization has peaked and we are just realizing it. It’s not a radical suggestion. There are many signs of this around us. Detroit, once the centre of an unparallelled industrial and economic boom, has been in decline for decades, emblematic of our present direction. The home of the automobile, the birthplace of modern worker’s unions, the city where the assembly line was perfected – have these (albeit valuable) developments reached their peaks? I really don’t know. Might their decay give rise to new and greater structures?

It seems there is some remnant momentum from the early westward settlers of the New World, then encouraged to continue pushing the frontier, told to ‘Go West’. But where does it end? Is the Occident an accident? It may be time to reorient ourselves, to seek balance. We went all the way west, and the wave hitting the coast has been settling for some time now. Some hit the coast and leapt across to the extreme East (whether physically or philosophically), but otherwise, a general mellowing occurred, despite the crowds still flocking there. California, as well as Oregon and Washington, seemed to pave the way for the widespread acceptance of yoga and organics, generally waking people up. It is no surprise that it happened out there first, all the way west, and is now spreading back. Perhaps it will eventually settle us all into a natural balance. But many are still clinging to old habits, patterns and structures, very reluctant to relent. I wonder how much the caterpillar struggles as it becomes a butterfly?

If indeed we are in the midst of a great shift, as many sense, the new phase of life need not be seen as a negative. A ‘recession’ or ‘decline’ is a natural cycle of life, and can bring us into closer contact with the things that truly matter in life. Money is not among them. The buzz of our consumptive guzzle muddles our vision. Even the faintest trace of greed clouds our sight. We need to refrain, to reframe and retrain ourselves in order to see clearly. But the suffering caused by this consumerist chaos is sufficient to alert us and shake us awake. Balance is asserting itself, effortlessly – at apparent peril to many. Whether as active pacifists, passive activists, generally apathetic passengers or any other creative combination of character, our collective excess is awakening many to the madness of our ways, giving rise to a more conscious hand in our continued evolution. But this is a dynamic dance, and we must honour the grunts and nudges of mother nature. Technology need not fade away, but we must first listen to and respect the needs of our host, our home, the centre upon which we spin. We must surrender our short-sighted desires for the demands of life. The more we resist change, the worse it will hurt. All attempts at total control will eventually implode – we are seeing this now. So let’s let go together, with great care and attention, sensing the inborn course of nature, and serving it wisely, easing the transformation. Maybe we will all end up butterflies flitting about lightly, dancing delicately in the dynamic creative centre of life (whatever that might mean).

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This has been quite the rant. It is largely unedited and very much ‘off-the-cuff’, chewing on and spewing out a few notions that have been rolling around inside a while. If you made it through it all, please take in what suits you and discard the rest. It looks as though I am railing on cities at times, which have their obvious benefits, though they seem to separate us to the same extent that they press us together. However, I guess our perceptions and behaviours are ultimately up to us. Whether in the city or otherwise, as we become more conscious and respectful of nature’s balance, I believe our society can serve nature instead of stripping it. The planet will cleanse itself of our presence if we are unable to come back into balance. And I sense that we are waking up and responding to this call. As we do so, cities are becoming healthy hubs. But we cannot forget to check in with life in the old-fashioned forest. Am I biased? Would I know for sure one way or another? Maybe I am just ready for some time in the woods. That’s where I am headed. Right now. I wrote much of this last night, in order to keep up with my Monday posting schedule. I am off to hike for a week in Killarney Provincial Park with a friend. I will check in again next week to let you know what I found out in the woods – aside, of course, from perpetual youth.