Lately, I’ve been so busy at it work, it’s almost a parody of itself. Some days, my time is scripted down to 15 minute intervals. In the main, I enjoy it, but it does promote a kind of breathless, run-to-the-next thing life style that is, more often than not, pretty stressful. I’m sure that many people can relate to this.
This past weekend, my baby brother got married up in Cape Cod Massachusetts. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, we held a cookout near a beach with a pretty long 1/4 mile or so boardwalk that ran out from the beach, through a marshy section and ended on the bank of salt water river. The end of the boardwalk had a standing area from which we could look down into the river and see fish, crabs and even lobsters. The tide was coming in at that point. My sister had tied some raw chicken to sticks and we used using those contraptions to “fish” for crabs. I didn’t see anyone catch a crab, but a lot of small fish were VERY interested.
As the tide continued to roll in and pick up steam, the river current grew in strength and sometimes, you’d see a crab sort of spinning out of control as it was carried haplessly along.
I was thinking about those crabs this week and I felt a weird human/crustacean connection :). Many times, they have a lot of control over what they do. They scurry along doing their crab business, grasping here and there, finding food and enjoying life (or so I assume). But now and then, the current picks them up and all they can do is go along for the ride.
I often find myself rushing to get to a meeting. Working in NYC as a consultant, many of my meetings take place at client sites, outside of my office by WTC. I’m normally in the subway a couple times a week. Meetings are rarely easy. Sometimes they are unpleasant because my team or I failed to meet expectations in way or another. Sometimes they are pregnant with meaning – for instance, when I’m there to support sales folks who are trying to break into a new market segment (it often takes months to set up these kinds of meetings).
And now to the point :). When I’m travelling along the subway, I tend to fret. Many times I worry about being on time. Many times, I worry that the PowerPoint presentation or other supporting material is deficient in some way. I often worry about food (of all things), especially when the meeting is at 11am for an hour and then I have to be somewhere else at 1pm for another meeting :).
It’s at times like this that I feel like that crab – I’m swept along to a destination by a medium over which I have absolutely no control. I think of the subway as the river, but it’s more than that and the analogy breaks down. There comes a time when I have to do something (a client meeting) and I’ve prepared as much as I can prepare. I don’t have any time left do anything. I can fret over it and re-run it in my head and worry whether I’m going to be on time or not, but the fact is, I’m that crab in the river current and I don’t have any control over anything until the current deposits me at my destination.
Through my study and interpretation of Zen in my Sangha and with Sensei, I’ve come to view this helpless worrying for what it is – an unhelpful and unnecessary self-fulfilling stress machine. I have been using my Zen knowledge, such as it is, to deal with this by focusing on the “now.” When I recognize that my mind is roiling over these worry-thoughts, I take a deep breath and pay really close attention to what is happening around me and what my body is telling me. My shoulders straight away tell me that I’m in a bad state. I turn my attention to that and then to the space around me. At first, this wasn’t terribly helpful, but I had faith (which was a giant leap for me, personally) that it would help and it did seem useful. Over time, I’ve been doing it more and more and it’s become almost second nature. Incredibly, the loud, noisy and not-so-clean NYC subway system with all the odd and interesting characters that you’re likely to meet has become something of a sanctuary for me. Since I’m helpless (in the sense that I can’t do any actual work, not even use my cell phone), I let all the things that stress me out fall away and I just pay attention to the Now.
I wanted to write about this to reinforce what has become a useful technique for me (and it’s not limited in scope to subway rides!). I’m also trying to use this blog to explore and share my thoughts as I continue on the path for those that are curious about the practical consequences of Zen study.