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  • Andrew Lewis


Does your 'to do list' seem overwhelming? Does it sometimes seem to be running the show, pushing you offstage in your own life?

What is to be done about this? You may have heard that mindfulness practice and meditation involves a lot of sitting around doing nothing; a waste of precious time and a luxury and indulgence that you can't afford. It would halt your progress, close down your creativity and lead to stagnation. You would fail to meet targets and your 'to do list' would soon become a document of your failure. All this talk of meditation, sitting still and 'just being' is not for you, and your instinct is to resist it even though you have a feeling of dissatisfaction.

The truth is that taking on less, doing less, slowing down, is essential for our wellbeing, our creativity and our progress. It is not possible to achieve focus, awareness, concentration and clarity of thought by scattering ourselves in all directions in a frenzy of activity. Try having a conversation while attempting to listen to a separate conversation across the room. You will become unsettled.

By deliberately choosing to slow down, narrow our focus, limit our scope, we are asserting control and giving our brain the 'space' to function in keeping with its capacity and with creativity and settled purpose.

It is fashionable to turn towards ancient eastern thought to seek out the wisdom behind this. But it is not the sole preserve of gurus, sadhus, mystics, buddhas or maharishis. It is not exclusively to be found in texts of ancient China or Japan, or in the Buddhist Pali Canon, or hidden deeply in Sanskrit mantras. It has been discovered throughout the world, in all ages and cultures.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote in his major work 'Either/Or' , 'Idleness is not an evil; indeed one may say that every human being who lacks a sense for idleness proves that his consciousness has not yet been elevated to the level of the humane.' In the same work he speaks of what happens when our options are limited, when we have fewer distractions: 'The more you limit yourself, the more fertile you become in invention. A prisoner in solitary confinement for life, becomes very inventive and a spider may furnish him with much entertainment.'

We may think Kierkegaard is going a bit too far here! Nevertheless he makes a point. Think of how some of the greatest poetry has been composed under the strict constraints of sonnet form. Far from weighing them down the constraints seemed to set Wordsworth and Shakespeare free to soar to some of their greatest heights. This is what Wordsworth meant when he wrote 'Nuns fret not in their convent's narrow room.'

Think of how some of our greatest music is composed within the 'limitations' of sonata form, or the specific rules of a raga.

All around us we see evidence of how narrowing our focus, discarding an ever lengthening range of options and stimuli, boosts our creativity and helps us to achieve more. This is something that has practical significance for our daily lives. We can exercise choice and control. We can decide on steady focus, rather than a mad rush in all directions. This may mean an inevitable slowing down, but the compass needle that points in all directions at once, points nowhere.

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