Whenever we find ourselves struggling to raise some enthusiasm for a dull chore or persistence in a long, drawn out activity, the Buddhist approach to motivation often involves recalling the principles of not-self. Feelings are not-self, so we tell ourselves that the feeling of wanting to give up is not-self and we try to let it pass. Thoughts are not-self, so we remind ourselves that the thought of being finished and sitting with our feet up is not-self, and we try to let it go.
If you ever happen to hear Ajahn Bodhipala teaching walking meditation she will more than likely tell you “nobody is walking, nobody is there.” Just walk, don’t think. Don’t think about walking, just walk. Don’t think about who is walking, just walk. This combination of not-self and mindfulness can be another helpful way to cut through the noise of our moaning mind when we are resisting whatever it is that we need to do.
But while I was considering just what it was about tasks and to-do lists that always felt so personal, it occurred to me that there was something about tasks and self-view that connected them together. The idea came to me as I considered the nature of tasks themselves and how something comes to be understood as an identifiable task.
I was inspired by this passage about the nature of spring and how we define it from Being-Time by Shinshu Roberts:
“Spring is not a date on the calendar, spring is not just seeing a robin on your lawn, spring is not only about the daffodils blooming- there is so much more going on. It is infinite and interconnected, not sequential. It is the befores and afters manifesting as the moment we call spring. Spring is a concept or name we give to a simultaneous passage of being-times that we winnow out of the totality of all reality. Spring could not be spring without the universal activity of all being-time. The effort of each thing and all things makes up the seasons. Dogen acknowledges the independent dharma position of spring when he writes “springtime’s passage invariable passes through spring.” Spring is the effort of the arising of one (or all) dharma(s) or being(s) right now. ”P174 Being-Time by Shinshu Roberts
What it said to me was that while we have a very clear conceptual idea of what spring is, the reality of it is much more amorphous than that. It suggested to me that there is no one particular thing that we can point to and say ‘this is spring’. It shows that the start of spring is just a concept and the end of spring is just a concept. The idea that we decide a start and end of a period of time, and label the time in-between as ‘something’, such as spring, made me think about all the other periods of time that we do this with. I thought about the kinds of tasks that we might write on our to-do list, clean this, move that, go here, etc. and investigated whether this same principle was at work.
I realised that where a task starts and ends can be open to interpretation; if you go on a camping holiday does the activity of camping (or any kind of holiday for that matter) start when you arrive at the campsite, or did it start a week before when you went through your equipment to check everything was intact? Or two weeks before when you started writing lists of everything you needed for the trip? Or a month earlier when you decided to look for a campsite to book? Did it end when you packed up the tent and drove home, or did it end a few days later when everything had been cleaned and put away again?
When you are cooking dinner when does that task actually begin? That morning when you decided what to cook today? A few days ago when you bought food from the supermarket? Last week when you had something nice and thought it would be nice to have it again soon? At the end of last month when you checked your finances and worked out how much money you had to spend on food this month? And when does cooking dinner end? When the food is ready? When you serve it? When you eat it? When the dishes have been done?
Like the idea of spring, it seems that with our ordinary tasks we take a range of various activities spread out over time and stick a simple label on them. We feel like we know when something has started or finished, but in reality all of these different start and end points suggested for going camping or cooking dinner are just as correct as each other. There is no single definitive answer to when the task of cooking dinner started or ended, which shows that the idea of a defined task with a tidy start and finish is entirely the product of our conceptual mind.
The reality of time is that all there ever is is one moment after another, movement and stillness endlessly interwoven, but somehow we find a way to divide these moments up into discrete units of time and into defined activities. Anything that creates a division has to come from the conceptual mind, and the presence of any concept goes hand in hand with self-view – by the splitting of the world into separate parts a ‘person’ who must be observing the objects that the mind has just made is also created.
Tasks and self are intimately connected together because they arise together from the facet of the conceptual mind – from the same misjudgement of how the world works. The things we identify as discrete tasks are defined by our own concept of when they start, end, and what they comprise of. The task we have conceived does not exist without our self-view that created it. Therefore we feel the burden of this task as acutely personal, because it only exists because of us.
But there is no-one to take things personally in reality though, the feeling that there is is just a mistake of self-view. Likewise we can apply the same logic and say that there is also no task in reality either, it is just the work of the conceptual mind. If we remove the sense of self, in the way we might normally do, then the task loses its personal edge and is much more tolerable. But by the same token we can also remove the idea of the task, and allow each moment and action to just flow. If there is no task, then there is no-one to get upset about whether it is nearly finished yet or not.
There is only ever just movement or stillness: we stand up, walk to the kitchen, go to the fridge, take out some ingredients, fetch a knife and chopping board, chop vegetables, fetch a pan, put it on the hob, turn the heat on, put oil in the pan, put the ingredients in the pan, cook the ingredients, fetch some plates, put the food on the plates, fetch some cutlery, take the plates and put them on the dinner table, sit down, eat the food, take the empty plates, put them in the dishwasher, choose a programme, turn the dishwasher on, come back when it is finished, take the plates out, put them away. None of these activities are specifically “making dinner”, making dinner is a name that we sometimes give to a set of activities like this.
None of these activities have any self in them either; any notions of “I, me, or mine” that come up for us while we are doing them is just a misunderstanding of our experience. We would understand that it was very strange to make an identity out of opening the fridge door, or picking up some knives and forks, so it isn’t surprising that we rarely try to.
If there is no task of “making dinner” really, that also implies that “making dinner” never starts or ends. Each moment just arrives, unfolds, and moves on to the next, and continues to do so smoothly if we don’t interfere with it. If we just flow with each moment there are no starts and ends, just one thing then another. There is no end of eating dinner and start of filling the dishwasher, there are just different moments, different movements, different actions. When there are just moments, movements, and actions, there is much less need for there to be anybody to do them.
Of course we get directed all the time in meditation and mindfulness practice to focus on just this moment, just what is here, but the moment itself doesn’t often contain the information we need to apply its principles to every other moment. It takes a little bit of unpacking to see what it is about ‘the moment’ that is so useful to understand.
If you can focus on just the moment, you can see what is actually in it, and what is there in real time is just whatever is happening. There are no concepts in the moment; the mind simply doesn’t move fast enough to apply a concept to something while it is actually happening. Concepts need us to take the information and process it; the concept always arrives after the moment that we labelled with it:
“Shohaku Okumura writes, “There is always some gap between the actual experience of the present moment and our thoughts about the present moment and how we define it; the present moment is ungraspable even though it is the only actual moment of experience.” Before we can define a moment to ourselves, that moment is gone.”Being-Time Shinshu Roberts p120
If you look very closely in the moment you won’t find any tasks. The mind can’t label the activity that goes with it fast enough for the idea and the action to be concurrent.
Often when we want to examine the reality of the moment and all the concepts that aren’t there, we deliberately put our attention onto the activity itself. The mindfulness practices coming out of Burma use labelling our experience as it happens – ‘walking’, ‘breathing’, ‘washing’, etc. as a way to sharpen our attention to what is actually happening in the moment. This is a very useful introductory practice because it allows us to strip away a lot of extraneous thoughts and ideas that we have about whatever we are doing, and hones our mindfulness to stay with just what is happening and not allow the mind to spin off into proliferation.
Other mindfulness approaches guide us to slow our activities down and be mindful of every single moment and movement that we make while we do them. Thich Nhat Hanh gives us surely one of the most famous pieces of advice on this:
“While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.” The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh.
But Shinshu Roberts writes that emphasis in mindfulness practice on focusing closely on the experience of an activity, such as being focused only on washing the dishes while performing the task, can still cultivate a subject-object relationship – there is still an “I” who is “washing the dishes” that hasn’t been addressed. She suggests that the way a Zen master like Dogen might describe the experience of the activity of washing the dishes would be something like “washing washes washing” (ibid. p137), completely removing any self from the equation.
The presence or absence of the subject-object position is a subtle distinction but an important one. When we deliberately employ mindfulness in an activity we can easily slip from paying attention to the activity, to paying attention to ourselves as we do the activity. I don’t think that when Thich Nhat Hanh says that one should be completely aware that one is washing the dishes he is telling us to pay attention to the person who is doing the dishes, but I can also see how easy it is to fall into doing just that. I think he is suggesting that we should be so focused on the act of doing the dishes that there is no space for a sense of self to be there, but it does still leave a little gap for a subject-object relationship to remain if we aren’t careful.
Washing washes washing might sound like a complex concept, but it isn’t that hard in practise to put the focus of our attention on the process of washing the dishes and simply be a witness to what is happening without making any of it personal. If there is no person washing, then there is just washing. We can witness just washing. When we witness washing, we can observe that the product of that action is that it washes – so washing washes. What does washing wash? The washing. So washing washes washing.
When we can experience this then we can see that these processes, these moments, these activities that we apply concepts to and turn into “tasks” can all happen without any sense of self being present, and without any label needing to be applied to them.
There are processes happening all the time; we just come along and put labels on them, starts and endings, rights and wrongs, nows and laters. And all of these starts, endings, rights, wrongs, nows and laters create infinite amounts of stress for us because they are propping up the senses of self that they rely on for their existence. It can feel very real, but ultimately none of it is.
I’ve taken this approach that there is no person, no task, and no starts and ends and applied it many times now. Personally I’ve found that it opens me up to the wider reality of experience in a way that just working on the not-self side of it does, and it certainly helps to keep me on track with things that I want to end sooner. It’s not just a productivity hack but a lesson in Dhamma too.
When my alarm clock goes off at silly o’clock I pause and remind myself that there is no “person” who is “getting out of bed”. When I think that I want this painfully slow job to finish I remind myself that there is no end, there is no start, there is just activity. Whenever I feel a resistance to an activity I remind myself that there is no-one doing anything, it is just a sensation of resistance coming up, it is just a story about “me” and “this task”.
Meditation is especially interesting when you examine it through the lens of no person and no task. If you are not doing any “thing” while you are sitting there, then what is actually happening? If there is no “person” there, then what is actually going on?
If you take away the idea that your meditation starts when the bell rings once and ends when it rings three times then you can explore a different perspective of what meditation is, and how it applies to the moments when you are not “meditating”.
This kind of approach to meditation is similar to the Zen way of doing zazen, more specifically shikantaza – just sitting. The aim is to just observe, just witness the moment, to not interfere with it nor have any ideas about it, to just allow it to unfold as it is. When you take away the person and you take away the task, all that is left is dhamma – the way the world actually is.
What is that like? Well that is something you will need to see for yourself; once you get into areas where concepts aren’t operating language very quickly becomes useless, words can only be very clumsy approximations for what the experience is actually like. These experiences aren’t profound though, they are very ordinary, and that is as it should be – they are experiences of reality, of how things are. These experiences aren’t difficult to have, and if you practice then it is important to try to cultivate them.
They not only open us up to seeing the reality of the world around us, but also release us from the stress that misunderstanding our experience creates. Nothing in the modern world seems to take up as much of our time or create as much stress as the feeling that “I” have “things to do”, so anything that we can do to break down that feeling is surely worth investigating.