The first book on meditation that I ever read was Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. The book had lots of practical tips that served me well when I started a meditation practice in earnest, but the text wasn’t quite as plain as it claimed to be. Gunaratana kept talking about how meditation can help you create space between you and your thoughts. I understood this as a concept but I had no clue what it meant in practice. In fact, the idea itself seemed counterintuitive, since my initial experience with meditation felt like being smothered by my thoughts, instead of creating space around them.
Even so, I pressed on because my mind had been running for so long that it felt like a relief even to take a brief pause just to watch the wheels spin. By the time I worked my way up to 10 minutes of meditation a day, I noticed a variety of spaces emerge in my life that I had never set out to find: I stopped rushing so much. In particular, I noticed my tendency to rush regardless of whether I was dealing with real time constraints.
For example, I used to be in a big hurry every time I went to the grocery store, racing around and grabbing items as if I were on a game show. Rather than prizes, this habit had usually only given me frustration when I had to stand in line or got caught behind someone walking too slowly. Soon after I started meditating, however, a magical voice from nowhere said “What’s your rush?” as I was briskly walking past the gliding doors. At the time, my daughter was just over a year old so time to myself—even running errands—was a rare and precious thing. I slowed down, strolling through the store with ease, gazing with interest at the lovely produce, and even chatting at check out with the clerk. I came home in a good mood, rather than a bad one.
Now, this isn’t to say that my tendency to rush doesn’t come back. It comes back to me all of the time. On one meditation retreat, I realized that I was rushing even in my meditation because I would force myself back to focusing on the breath the second I noticed my thinking. In addition to making me laugh heartily at myself, this also helped me realize that giving myself the time to see what thoughts had emerged would let me have the insights that vipassana (aka “insight meditation”) was supposed to produce.
Not only can rushing make us less aware of our lives, it can also cause us to behave less ethically. This was demonstrated by a famous study of seminary students who were told that they had to give a lecture across campus on, of all things, the Good Samaritan story from the Bible. Some of the students were told that they were late and others that they had plenty of time to get to their talk. The students were set up to pass a victim in need of assistance and, by a wide margin, the students with time to spare stopped more often to help. The conclusion from this is clear: time constraints—even pretend ones—can cause us to forget our higher ideals (and perhaps be totally oblivious to irony too).
This truth of this study is borne out by my life experience. In my small grocery store example, one of the other things that happened was that a petite woman asked me (I’m 5’11’’) to grab a product off a high shelf for her. Do you think she would have felt comfortable doing so if I looked stressed out and grumpy? Probably not. In that case, the absence of rushing on my part freed me up not just to feel better myself but also help someone else. This happened to me in more significant ways as my practice evolved. I was more likely to ask how other people were doing, to check in on friends I hadn’t seen in a while, or to plan ahead so that I had the ability to work fun and meaningful events with friends and family into my schedule. Over time, the reduction in my rushing made me feel less like I had no time, so I realized that, in fact, I had the time to do things I enjoyed, such as writing, or cooking or going to meditation retreats, even while practicing law and raising a family.
Now, if you are a litigator like me, you may think that rushing is somewhat predestined by the aggressive and deadline-ridden nature of our law practice. But, even here, I have found that being mindful of rushing is beneficial too. I try not to delay responding to emails to keep cases moving, but I give myself time if I need to craft a response. I definitely give myself time if the email is at all aggressive and irritating, as emails from lawyers can sometimes be. I also take the time to be sure clients are on board with case management and that they feel supported and like their voice is being heard in the process. In addition, because I am more aware of how stressful time constraints can be, I am more proactive about managing cases and deadlines with clear communications so that the work gets done with as little human misery as possible. Sometimes there is no way around a hard deadline and you just have to work like hell to get the project done, but that only makes it all the more necessary to develop a habit of paying attention so that you don’t fall into the all too human habit of treating all deadlines that way.
In the years since I started meditating, I have experienced the space that Gunaratana promised in numerous different ways. Though it seemed to have little to do with my copious thoughts, reducing my tendency to rush may have been one of the most important. It provided me with the space that only time can provide to notice how I was living my life, and I was shocked to see that a small adjustment in how I behaved could produce such a significant change in my law practice, personal happiness, and relationships.
If, like me, you are someone who tends to rush, the first step is to notice when it arises. Notice what it feels like in your body when you rush. Notice the thoughts that emerge. Over time, you will see patterns and then the next step is to start to ask yourself whether the perceived time constraints are real. If they are, you can learn to take a deep breath and offer yourself compassion as you face the task. If they are not, take several deep breaths and offer yourself care by slowing down. Then simply repeat these steps over and over again for the rest of your life, congratulating yourself for crises averted and forgiving yourself for any mistakes. We cannot control how much space or time life gives us, but we have some control over how we perceive it. Meditation can help us remember this and that is one way it can make us free.
If you need a quick reminder to help you watch the rushing, check out our quick mini video here:
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