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.

Lent: A Tool for Simplifying

As Lent approaches, let me talk about how this time can be used as a wonderful tool.

First of all, I just want to mention that I am a lapsed Catholic. I do not participate in any other Catholic rituals, other than occasional visits to Mass and Weston Priory. There may be a time when I feel a call to return, but for now, I am what I consider to be a non-denominational spiritual seeker with strong Christian and moderate Buddhist leanings.   

But I have always found Lent to be a highly inspirational, instructive, and sometimes life-changing opportunity for spiritual practice. By making one small part of our lives change for the better for this period of roughly 40 days, we have the opportunity to become stronger spiritually, and set the behavior into our daily lives for good.

Last year, for instance, I gave up high fructose corn syrup.  A few days before Ash Wednesday, I picked up Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma in the airport while on a business trip. I won’t go into why this book provoked this 40-day experiment. I would rather recommend you read this fantastic book, but as a direct result of this serendipitous pick at the airport newsstand, I had the opportunity to learn something valuable and life-changing.

By the time Easter arrived I had:

  1. Successfully eliminated HFCS from my diet for Lent. I now am much more conscious of labels and still feel that we are better off eliminating manufactured additives such as HFCS from our diet. Long-term change: Drastic reduction in consumption of HFCS.
  2. Greatly expanded my ability to cook with healthy foods. Because of the ubiquitousness of HFCS, I was literally forced to cook from scratch most of the time. Long-term change: Dare I say it? I actually enjoy cooking now. 
  3. Learned about all the local farms in my area and visited most of them. Much of these learnings came from great local food sites such as and its partner site, These two sites are fantastic resources for learning what’s available in your area, what foods are in season and when. Long-term change: I now have the resources and more knowledge so that choosing local foods is not a big mystery to me; I now plan trips to the farmers markets and local farms on a regular basis. 

I will talk more about food and this particular experience in later blog entries. But for now, I would like to set the stage for the next several weeks. To continue on the purgation theme already begun, this year will be the Lent of Letting Go. My goal will be to:

Reduce personal consumption and the number of my possessions and increase my mindful release of negative emotions such as fear, worry and anxiety, to allow me to be able to focus on the True North of my life: greater communion with God, family and friends, nature, and meaningful contribution to work and society.

That’s the journey. I will post the pathway on Ash Wednesday.

I’ll be drawing from the works of others who have  

  • Learned to thrive with less
  • Developed philosophies around voluntary simplicity
  • Have written works which both motivate and instruct. 

This means authors such as Richard Gregg, Duane Elgin, Jim Merkel, and Richard Foster. There are so many teachers to learn from in this area!

But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.  Next post:  Wednesday, February 25.

Decluttering, Purging, and Peace Pilgrim

It’s February now, but my New Year’s resolution to declutter my life drastically has not trickled off as steeply as other resolutions such as to lose weight and get up at 5:00 a.m. to make the most of the day. So, I’m still thinking about the concepts of letting go, clearing out, releasing back to the universe, and doing some serious purging.

The first time I took the idea of purgation and purification seriously was a few years back, while reading about Peace Pilgrim. Peace Pilgrim was a woman who walked well over 25,000 miles from coast to coast spreading her own rendition of the Golden Rule and living a life of peace and simplicity. Her message is so basic and pure, uncluttered by religious dogma, nationalism, or any other –ism, that I have become deeply inspired by it.

“This is the way of peace. Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.”

Love is The Thing. So often, that message is so cluttered up and sabotaged by a variety of meaningless things. But she simply got rid of those things in her own life and was left with the Big Thing. She owned one outfit, a toothbrush, a pen, note cards, and stamps, making Thoreau somewhat of a Vanderbilt in comparison.

In her short pamphlet called “Steps Toward Inner Peace” she talks about the 4 Purifications:

• Purification of the body
• Purification of thought
• Purification of desire
• Purification of motive

Another word for purification is purgation. While purgation might have more religious or ritualistic overtones, I find the word “purge” or “purgative” to be so cleansing. It’s the deep to-the-bones version of declutter. It’s simplicity of the spirit—sometimes manifesting itself in the purging of material things, but always manifesting itself in the soul, attacking that very territorial Ego of ours. A cleansing, a clearing of the part of our selves that blocks us from the ability to just Be without attachments or conditions or fears or ambitions.

Here’s kind of a funny story. A few years back I went online to The Friends of Peace Pilgrim and ordered a bumper sticker with a peace message. I’m not much of a bumper sticker person. I’m a little too introverted and nonconfrontational to emblazon my beliefs where everyone can see them and form an opinion, but I figured, who could argue with peace? So I put it on the bumper of my Sentra, and forgot about it.

It seemed to me that after I did that, other drivers on the road were behaving really rudely—even for New Jersey drivers. I’d be in the middle lane, and people would be flashing their headlights at me. They’d drive by me, and flash their lights at me. In response, I did what any self-respecting New Jersey driver would do—I’d glare at them and gesture spastically—I’m sure they could read my lips, which were not quite mouthing the words “Peace be with you, brother.”

One day as I was walking behind the car it hit me—the bumper sticker. I stared at it and thumped my forehead with the palm of my hand, recalling all those drivers who had ticked me off daily with their headlights flashing. The bumper sticker said:

“Shine a Light for Peace.”

And there they were, shining all kinds of headlights for peace, and getting me in response, a lunatic contorted with pure road rage. It’s funny that I don’t recall seeing in their faces any confusion at the cognitive dissonance of this peace-loving Friend of Peace Pilgrim responding to their overtures of goodwill with body language that would make George Carlin blush.

Anyway… kind of a Buddhist lesson in how sometimes the first thing that we should purge is our own perceptions.

Peace Pilgrim is not as well known as many who have carried the same banner of peace—perhaps people find her a little too kooky—a woman walking if or until offered food or shelter? Is that relevant at all in our society where everything has a price unless you’re too stupid to ask? Or perhaps her actions have not brushed shoulders with a large enough segment of society in the way that Martin Luther King, Jr touched millions who were in need of the hope of civil rights for all, or the way that Gandhi touched the millions of Indians in need of self-determination. But that doesn’t diminish her life as a torch-bearer for peace and understanding—not just to and from the coasts that she covered in our Continental United States, but as a beacon of light in our unified, global collective consciousness—shining a light for peace to pierce our lack of compassion, our faulty perceptions, and our road rage.