My husband and I recently went on a tour of Morocco, and over the coming weeks I’m sure that experience will work its way into my dharma talks, as it has already done in my poetry. But the first thing I notice coming off such a structured experience is what a relief to be back on my own schedule, living at what feels like a more natural pace. It makes me realize how fortunate I am to live at my own pace most of the time when so many of us live our lives to some degree at a pace someone else has set. The younger we are, the more likely that is to be true. We are rudely awoken out of a delightful dream in the cold dark of morning and made to go off to school where we may end up watching the wall clock, just waiting for it to be over.
The majority of adults wake up at a time that will get us to work when our employers require us to be there. We eat lunch at the time we’re allotted, whether we are hungry or not, and no matter how we are feeling throughout the day, we hang in there until quitting time. Because that is the way life is. And generally we adapt to it reasonably well, although some part of us is longing for the weekend or daydreaming about our upcoming vacation. Oh yes, I remember it well. But age has its benefits. Most of my students are retired now, and even those that aren’t have the luxury of setting their own schedules to a much greater degree than when they were younger. Even so, are we truly living our lives at our own pace? If not, why not? Why does it matter? And finally, what could we do to become more attuned to the natural pace of our body-mind? On a tour, this living at someone else’s pace is a short-term sacrifice, one we make willingly in exchange for unique experiences we would not have had otherwise. My husband and I would never have traveled all over Morocco on our own, or had access to the interiors of private homes and one on one conversations with the locals over mint tea and tagine. Getting our luggage out in front of our hotel room door at a too-early hour is just part of the deal. At home we choose to live one day a week at the pace set by our son and daughter-in-law’s employers as we take care of our granddaughters, who are the delight of our lives. Worth every exhausting minute! Thank goodness they still take afternoon naps, as do we when we’re with them. What are some choices you make to extend yourself beyond your natural inclination because it is worth it to you? By recognizing the value we receive, we can become more conscious, more grateful and less resentful of any sacrifice. At the same time, we can look a little closer and question whether the sacrifice to our own pace is actually required here. Maybe that meeting could be rescheduled. Maybe we don’t have to take the first appointment the doctor’s office suggests. Maybe we can limit ourselves to one or two commitments a day rather than packing our calendar. How often do we sacrifice our natural pace and inner body clock needlessly? Can we make it a more conscious choice? I used to teach meditation at four o’clock in the afternoon. What was I thinking? That’s the time of day when my body clock has wound down to its lowest point. As a child if I were ill, that’s when my fever would spike. So what was I doing trying to formulate a dharma talk or lead a discussion when I knew I would be at my lowest ebb? It didn’t make sense. For other reasons I needed to change the day and time of our meeting. I lost some students in the process, which made me sad. But others were now able to attend at the new time of 10 AM, when I am awake, alert and energized. I’ve learned to try to not schedule anything in the late afternoon, and give myself permission to watch my favorite DIY or cooking show if I feel like it. Domestic transformation or culinary finesse soothe me when I’m just not up for anything else. Sure I could meditate again, and that would probably be wise, but hey. We all find our own ways and that’s one of mine. Are you regularly taking on some activity at the wrong time of day for you? If so, is there another option? This is a valuable investigation. One student loves her exercise class but getting to it requires waking much earlier than she otherwise would two days a week. Only she can know if there is something about that particular class that makes it worth the sacrifice. And maybe there is some value in creating some flexibility in our schedule. Who knows? Again, we just want to be conscious of what we are doing and how we are making our choices. One student had an aha moment when she realized that whenever she finds herself tired during the day she gives herself a good talking to about the importance of soldiering on. She suddenly sees that this is hardly compassionate. Another student said she takes a 20 minute nap every day at three in the afternoon. Little things like that can make a huge difference if it’s what the body needs at that time. Noticing what the body needs is a skillful way to stay present, sensing in. It counteracts our nature to be overly habitual, eating when we’re not hungry, resting when we’re not tired, just because the clock tells us it’s time. Developing good habits is important, lest we forget to brush our teeth, etc., but going unconscious is not skillful. So brush those teeth but really be present for the experience of the gums being stimulated! We often have a hard time being compassionate with ourselves. It might help to realize that we do no service to others when we push beyond our body-mind’s ability to function. If we drive when we’re tired, for example, it’s not just ourselves that we are putting in harm’s way. Let’s remember that our actions have ripple effects and pushing ourselves to the point of mindlessness is unkind and sometimes dangerous to everyone in our community because that is when accidents happen. It’s also important to be aware of what we are going through. Part of these ‘golden years’ we are in is learning to live with loss: the loss of loved ones, the loss of health, the loss of access or abilities. Loss takes us on journeys we need to be present and compassionate to traverse. Can we learn to sense into what the body-mind needs right now? Even though perhaps we have always been able to get a lot done in a short time, right now, in this state, can we let go of our rigid expectations, our striving and our longing for accomplishment? Can we let go of comparing ourselves to the 20 year old we once were? How fully can we allow ourselves to experience our lives as they are now without constantly dragging up the past or dreading the future? If this ‘soldiering on’ in spite of what your body-mind needs sounds familiar, there are lots of valuable questions you can ask yourself. You might explore the roots of this whip-cracking aspect of self. Perhaps its just a part of the cultural norms we live with, but perhaps there is something in your personal history, some voice from the past telling you not to be lazy, for example. This word ‘lazy’ is an interesting one. It takes us into the Buddhist Five Hindrances that include sloth and torpor. But remember that restlessness is a Hindrances too. And all of the Hindrances arise out of a misunderstanding of the nature of being. When we are truly present and compassionate, we do not lounge our life away. We are naturally active at a sustainable pace. We enjoy using the full range of our energy in ways that express our aliveness, even if that range is less than it once was. We do this without pushing, cracking a whip or nagging ourselves. If we really notice and are very honest with ourselves, we can tell when we are resting because our body-mind truly needs to rest, and when we are vegging out because we are bored, depressed or frustrated. If the latter, then that’s an opportunity to question in. As we take up the regular practice of meditation, we naturally begin to create a spaciousness of mind that allows us to see more clearly what is really going on here. The tight knots of previously unexamined patterns of thought and activity are now visible. We can see them from more angles as they become disentangled, disengaged and potentially released. We can view them with compassion. We can let go of the stranglehold of claiming them as our identity. When we think of living life at our own pace, we might be afraid that we will fall out of step with the rest of the world. But in fact there is a lot more room in life, and especially in retirement, for living with greater ease. Old patterns can be noticed and released when they don’t serve us. An important question to ask ourselves is ‘how am I in relationship with...’ whatever is coming up in our awareness. Am I being present, compassionate and responsive? Or am I judging, making assumptions on automatic pilot and being hyper-reactive? Such an inner exploration can help us to live more honestly, compassionately and vibrantly. If any of this rings bells, as you go through your day, see who is calling the shots, who is setting the pace in your life. Sense into the body. Notice the present energy level and ability. If you find yourself rushing, slow down. Notice the adrenaline and the mindlessness of hurry. Pause to notice at least two senses -- the sounds around you, the feel of air on your skin, perhaps. When you have a chance, decide where you might create ease next time this happens. If you procrastinate so that you feel rushed at the last minute, where did that pattern come from? What thoughts are going through your head as you resist getting started earlier. Are you not wanting to do this thing? Is it necessary to do it? There’s lots of room for self-exploration and discovery here. Start noticing, savoring, being fully alive. See to what degree you can live life at your own pace.