Monday, March 13, 2006

Clutter, Hindrance, and Time

How to begin? I think of many possible ways, so then I sit here, thinking and writing nothing, for minutes on end. I move on, do something else, and still I haven't been able to choose a beginning, and what to do, what not to do, what to say, what not to say. I think of more things to say, until it becomes a mountain. How could I even begin to cover it all? Of course then I'm embarrassed when those minutes become days, and months, and the mountain becomes even bigger. All those quippy quips left unsaid, how I could have amused those few who happen to read this. All that news that became old news, and my witty thought on this, that profound insight (hah) on that, lost to the particular hell of a procrastinator's undetermined closet of vague intentions.

I used to have this problem with letters, before email came along. I also have this problem with household clutter. I set something aside, "just temporarily," and soon the pile of junk mail on the table becomes a mountain. Usually, with my clutter, comes the voice of my childhood conscience, "What would your mother say if she saw this?" There was also the sting of aversion to household work thanks to its direct connection to disproportionate punishments from her husband, my stepfather. The work practice of Zen helped alleviate a lot of my emotional hangups in that realm, so now with that voice comes merely the remembrance of that sting, and that hindrance.

Hindrance makes me think of a saying from Dogen we Zen folks are fond of tossing about. From Uji, or Time-Being: "As for hindrance, through hindrance, we penetrate hindrance; hindrance hinders hindrance - this is time." In this time-being moment, I am this person who creates a list, and as she does an action on that list and crosses it off, some things on that list continually get put off and carried over to the next list. This little nugget of hindrance, with its worries about fulfilling goals, about getting things done, about keeping a clean home, about putting the needs of others first, this hindrance becomes the way through to being me, to penetrating to no hindrance. At some point this nugget becomes so big, a mountain, I must examine it, I can't just let it keep looming. The looming hindrance won't be ignored. It is hindered by itself. So I must deal with it or let it die. This is how being becomes tied to time. This internal creation of a dialog between intention and doing, it defines an aspect of myself, my aspirations, my view of myself in the future. Hah! Hindrance, you are thwarted by yourself.

Zen is really good at teaching you to sweep it away, sweep it away, just do what's in front of you. Zen might tell me, "Too much stuff all around? Just let it go." Or that might be the popular notion of Zen and its aesthetic. I don't know that we can do that in this modern world. Stuff, yes, we can get rid of stuff. But these mountains in the mind, we must find a way to organize it. Sure, ultimately it doesn't matter. I live for a while. I die once. But now while I live, there is so much more than ever to take in. How do I change my life to deal with it? My Zen monk friend finds herself busier than she was as a student. So many duties to fulfill, needs to be met, and information to process.

Appropriately, this quote came through the informational clutter: "What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it." -Herbert Alexander Simon, economist, Nobel laureate (1916-2001)

Email and the internet have changed my life considerably. In some ways, my inability to write consistently comes from not knowing yet how to allocate my attention efficiently. I am more easily swayed by subtle hindrances, easily distracted by new information. It is easy to be buffeted about by the winds of a media storm. I can make connections to anyone in the world in an instant. This is truly a great gift, to have an awareness of so many possibilities, to have a connection to so many people at our fingertips. It is also a hindrance because we only have so much time to consume all that information.

Here is the heart of the matter. It is all too easy to consume rather than create. I have found ways to create when it comes to meeting the needs of others: teaching Dharma School; writing Oregon Sangha news; organizing within the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. I find the time for these, with all the consumption in between, but my personal goals get squeezed out.

I have made some gains in getting them squeezed back in. After a two year hiatus, I've begun writing on my novel again. Here, it's time to push the reset button. No more letting that mountain of unsaid commentary build up. Part of this new internet age that takes getting used to is the art of skimming. I have always read pretty fast, so whatever I would read, I would read fully and thoroughly. Now I cannot do that. And email lists, I cannot read each and every email. It's impossible. I am one who likes to consume, my prehensile brain finds it hard to miss some new brain food. When organizing this life, I must ask myself, do I want to be productive, or consumptive?

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