I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how busy we all are. And, how often it seems we have to shift our energy and attention, sometimes very quickly, from one thought or action to another.
This is the age of overload and relentlessness – of being expected to multi-task in a way that I don’t think human beings were meant to do. Think of it: we have a demanding, distracting social media, the breathlessness of our 24-hour news cycle, each person now doing the work of, say, 2.3 people, tight and stressful deadlines at work, working seven days a week just to keep up, the “sandwich generation” that actually is a kind of sociologic bologna sandwich, where you and your beloved are the slices of bologna sandwiched between the kids, on one side, and aging parents, on the other. Et cetera. Et cetera.
That is why it is so important, almost imperative, that people recognize when they have to power-down, go “offline,” and take care of themselves, and/or their relationships, before having to deal with unintended consequences. I’m suggesting that life is like a Slinky, but not at all in the sense of its simplicity. Rather, that life is an ongoing process of shifting and adapting from one point of focus to another, especially from outward to inward. In my view, how well we manage this has bearing on our happiness and peace of mind. So, enjoy this brief meditation before you have to get up and move on to the next thing.
Life as a Slinky
Back when I was a kid, there was a toy called a Slinky which was about as low-tech as you could get. It consisted of an accordion-like coil of flexible metal, about 3 inches across, which could be stretched-out by hand (to a point) and then, when released, would snap back to its original tightly-coiled, circular shape.
The biggest and perhaps best thing you could do with a Slinky was to start at the top of a staircase, give one end a push down to the next step below, let go of it, and watch it “walk” itself down the stairs on the power of its own forward momentum and gravity. The only other thing you could do with this toy was to hold it in your hands – one end of the Slinky in your right hand and the other end in your left – and move your hands up and down while the Slinky shifted its weight from one hand to the other, all the while making that strangely metallic “whoosh” sound that only could come from a Slinky.
But it’s not the walking down a staircase that I want to write about. It is about how life sometimes feels like a Slinky: an ongoing series of expansions and contractions; of having to balance or reconcile opposites; of understanding the way life shifts its weight, from one hand to the other, so to speak.
Every day we are called upon to direct energy and attention outward – for the sake of our work, our family and friends, our community, our current events and politics, our technology, and all the things that make up our responsibilities and obligations. But then, as circumstances change, or by necessity, we might have to direct our energy and attention inward, even when doing so runs counter to a belief system, habit, or comfort level. To remain alive requires both yin and yang. As much as we need to breathe in, equally we need to breathe out. Inhale, exhale. What we end up with is an unconscious, automatic, perfectly-paired symbiosis, much like a Slinky.
The point is that there are many among us who are so caught up in their “busyness” that the need to shift from the outer to the inner gets lost, or altogether ignored. Why is this so? One theory that makes sense is that we live in a culture that rewards or confers high status upon those who are considered “the busiest,” where being busy is worn as a badge of honor, possibly because it demonstrates importance or indispensability. Whatever the reason, I believe now it is more important than ever to recognize and act on the need not to forget about ourselves, but to be more mindful of healthy “inward” care, in whatever way.
The challenge to anyone reading this is to think about what self-care means to you, personally, and to know when it is time to act. To use a word very much in vogue these days, it is important to know when it is time to go “offline.” Because those who never do allow themselves, or see the need, to power-down are less likely to process and fully integrate experience. Had a bad day at work? Got into an argument with someone? Have had an overload of bad news coming out of the Middle East? Some would say you just have to choke it down and keep moving forward. OK. That’s one approach. The more adaptive approach, in my view, would be to temporarily get away from any and all devices that have to be plugged-in, put your sneakers on, and go out with your dog (if you have one) for a half-hour walk. And in that time, you’ll clear your head, your dog will love you, and maybe some of the day’s dirt and sweat will blow off in the cool evening breeze. Take care. Literally.