Minimizing Mental Clutter: Being Busy, Zen-style


Work tasks as discrete links in a chain of activity, to be done mindfully, one at a time

Work tasks as discrete links in a chain of activity, to be done mindfully, one at a time

I never know which is more cluttered–my physical environment or my mental one.    It’s like the old “which came first, the chicken or the egg” question.   Do I feel mentally fragmented because all around me is stuff, or is the stuff there because I haven’t been able to focus?

In wondering this today, I recalled a terrific online article I read years ago, and despaired of finding it today, but, wonder of wonders–I actually found it again!   So, click on the title and read the whole thing, because it’s worth it if you relate to feeling like there’s too much to do.   It’s called “Being Busy” by Zoketsu Norman Fischer and it’s a zen take on handling tasks as they come.

The other day, someone asked me how I was managing with all the busy stuff I am involved with. Was it getting to be too much? Well no, it can’t really get to be too much because there are only so many hours in the day and days in the week, and all the time I am only doing what I am doing–no more and no less. Whatever I can do, I can do, and whatever I can’t do, I can’t do.

So I don’t do it. Maybe I’ll do it later. But maybe that later won’t come. Right now, I am doing what I can do, and that’s all that I can do. Whether my list of things to do is long or short, in fact it’s just the same. I am doing what I am doing the best I can do it.

I remember how upset years ago I was when I found out we were having twins. I had for such a long time lived a very simple life–just a suitcase in my car and I was off. Now I had a wife and twins were on the way. It was a source of great anxiety for me until I realized that in the end it wasn’t so different. Before, I’d put one suitcase in the car and was off. Now, I’d do essentially the same thing: Put one suitcase in the car, put one suitcase in the car, put one suitcase in the car…however many there were, it was always just one suitcase. So it was more in a way, but if I looked at it in another way, it was just one thing. A kind of mental yoga. But it worked quite well and it still does.

So there may be a long list of things to do, but really there is just one thing on the list at any time. If you think of it like that, the whole world looks different and you can stay quite calm. Maybe everything will get done eventually and maybe not. You can always have hope. What more does anyone ever have than this anyway?”

I like the way he calls this exercise “mental yoga” because it really is.  It’s very hard for me to slow it down and not mentally jump to two or three other things on my list while I’m doing another.  The cause for this behavior may be anxiety (“how am I going to get all this done?”); or run-of-the-mill worry (“I can’t forget the phone call at 2:00.”) or avoidance (“Ugh, this report is so tedious.  Isn’t there something more interesting I could do right now?”).  In any case, my mind is scrambling like a sprinter at the block imagining herself crossing the finish line before the shot is fired.    How can I slow myself down?  How can I stay in the moment?

Sometimes simple images really help, and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has provided me with one that I try to think about when I’m feeling the need to focus.

In his book Peace Is Every Step, there’s a chapter “Nourishing Awareness in Each Moment.”  In it, he describes a moment–just a moment–that sticks with me.  

One cold, winter evening I returned home from a walk in the hills, and I found that all the doors and windows in my hermitage had blown open.  When I had left earlier, I hadn’t secured them, and a cold wind had blown through the house, opened the windows, and scattered the papers from my desk all over the room.  Immediately, I closed the doors and windows, lit a lamp, picked up the papers, and arranged them neatly on my desk.  Then I started a fire in the fireplace, and soon the crackling logs brought warmth back in the room.”

I love that paragraph!  I think of myself in the same situation.  If it had been me, perhaps I would have been out because the dog needed to go urgently–otherwise, who would have time to go for a walk?  So, I’d have come in, taken the dog off the leash and rushed back into my office to finish up the report that was probably due in a half hour.  Imagine my frustration to see the pages of my report all over the room!  I’d curse, and run around grabbing them, trying to get the pages right.  The dog, reacting to my heightened energy, would be playing tug-of-war with the stray sheets wrinkled up in my hand, and I’d be yelling for her to let them go.  I’d shew the dog out of the room, curse some more and wonder how I was going to make up for the lost few minutes, oblivious to the half-empty coffee mugs, piles of folders, open day-timer, and overflowing waste paper basket surrounding me.

Wow, so Thich Nhat Hahn shows me a different way to approach the same situation, using mindfulness, and concentrating on one small moment at a time.   He describes another image from a different chapter, “Not Two,” in the same book:

Each day I helped translate about thirty applications.  The way I did it was to look at the picture of the child.  I did not read the application.  I just took time to look at the picture of the child.  Usually after only thirty or forty seconds, I became one with the child.  Then I would pick up the pen and translate the words from the application onto another sheet.  Afterwards I realized that it was not me who had translated the application; it was the child and me, who had become one.  Looking at his or her face, I felt inspired, and I became the child and he or she became me, and together we did the translation.  It is very natural.  You don’t have to practice a lot of meditation to be able to do that.  You just look, allowing yourself to be, and you lose yourself in the child and the child in you.

In those last sentences, maybe we can substitute the word “work” for “child”–because often our work is our child–talents that we grow and nurture.  Like a child, it deserves our undivided attention.  Like a child, it is part of us.  The inspiration that is there in the middle of slow, tedious, relentless tasks can be found simply by paying attention.  I love how Thich Nhat Hanh describes his every motion:  “I would look at the child.”  “I would pick up the pen.”  “I would then translate the words.”  “I arranged the papers neatly on my desk.”  “I started a fire in the fireplace”  His work is not a slurry of activity, it is a chain of individual moments of engaged work, elevated to an act of meditation.



  1. Lovely post!

    Have you ever been over the the Simple Living Forums?

    We could use such thoughts 🙂 and such quotes to help us in our quest to live simply. Come visit sometime, and thanks for your comment on my blog regarding Susan Boyle.

  2. Oh!

    I just went to Simple Living and saw your post there! Too funny 🙂

    Here I was thinking you stumbled upon my blog and you would be PERFECT for SL, when all along you found my blog throuh y post on SL. Ok. Makes total sense…

    • Catherine says:

      Yeah, I read your original post at SL–then I really wanted to see your post. I totally agree with you about Susan Boyle… Thanks so much for visiting–and I really like your blog, too! Have a great weekend!

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