By Kellie Schorr
If I had to write a tag line for Buddhism it would be “We’ve got a list for that!”
There’s no question a dharma teacher can’t answer with a list. In fact, there are so many lists in the different traditions that sometimes the lists have lists. Want to get your head together and straighten out your path, or at least get some kind of “you are here” map when your life gets all crookedy?
There’s (sing with me):
12 Links of Interdependence
11 Lamas Leaping
9 Stages of Shamatha
8 Fold Path
5 Buddha Families
4 Noble Truths
3 Worldly Poisons
2 Types of Truth
and a Buddha under the Bodhi Tree.
And more. So much more. If you really want to be spiffy you can memorize the 21 Taras or go all the way to the 37 Factors of Awakening. It’s not hard to get lost in the forests of lists and precepts laid out over the ages in their profound bulleted form. What’s with all the numbers?
We like it like that.
We like our wisdom packaged in easy-to-follow, step by step formats that give us handrails to hold. We want our experiences to line up in columns and rows with emboldened headers and the ability to hit the “sum” button and see exactly what our life totals out to be.
I’ve been a dedicated spreadsheet girl all my life.
I’ve tracked diets and recipes, exercise plans, computer game scores, plant watering schedules, budgets and baseball stats, comic book titles and tea leaves. I even have a spreadsheet that lists the Buddhist lists—just in case one of those Taras slips away in the dark of night. If putting my life in columns was wrong, I didn’t want to be right. Except, I did.
One day I was deleting old files and I saw how many lovingly created, half-filled, completely forgotten spreadsheets I clicked into the trash. They were the usual suspects: exercise tracking and budget watching, calorie counts, a book reading list, meditation times, a list of places to submit my writing, how many vegetables my garden grew in 2014, and more. So many little digital boxes. So much life left undone.
Was I lazy or just bad at follow-through? Why does my exercise tracking always end within two weeks of beginning? Why didn’t I stick to that high protein, low candy diet? Why did that 60 day mantra experiment end at day nine?
Before I ended up drowning my sorrows in hot chocolate while blubbering, “The problem is me,” over and over, I took some time to sit on the cushion and clear my head.
AHA! I came up the with the perfect solution. I needed to examine what caused each list to fail and find the common denominator…by putting them all on a spreadsheet. I jumped off my cushion, ran for the computer, and clicked the icon I loved most: Blank Workbook.
“Maybe, just maybe,” my spirit cried out as I sat before the empty grid, “this is the problem. Maybe human beings don’t fit in small boxes, and human life isn’t designed to reach a sum total. Maybe I’ve been squeezing my soul into a cell format, instead of expanding to feed my soul. Maybe I should go off-grid for a while and see what a real, untracked life can do.”
I went free range. I stopped tracking. I started being.
Free range life is not the same as an unexamined life. It doesn’t mean you stop caring, stop trying, or give up new habits and ideas. It doesn’t mean you quit checking your bank statement and leave the grocery store with a whole cart of sugary “this-looks-good.” It simply means you aren’t obsessing, categorizing and judging every penny, cookie and thought. You aren’t agonizing every missed meditation as a blot on your practice. It means you are spending your time living, not counting. It means you are as generous with yourself as you try to be with others.
When your life is full of rigid little boxes, the unmarked space can send you spiraling.
You feel bad seeing it, beat yourself up for being unable to meet the slightest requirement, and eventually close your eyes because all you see is your lack. Another exercise plan off the rails. Another mantra practice in the trash. Might as well pull up a flat screen and a bucket of butter with some popcorn in it and call it a day.
Truth is, some of the best life changes and insights come from open spaces.
Some folks find a completed spreadsheet and digital accountability to be a motivating factor. Others may get a special joy from seeing their progress increase. However, if you are repeatedly stalling, particularly in your health or spiritual welfare, I encourage you to give free ranging a chance.
Instead of logging those meditation hours, set the timer, sit, and go. If the day comes when the curtains are on fire and your meditation doesn’t happen, admit “today is not the day” and sit tomorrow. Decide to do “one active thing” a day or follow a weight/walking routine for exercise. Don’t scribble it down. Do it and be done. If you miss a day, do something the next day. You’ll discover it’s a lot easier to go forward if you’re not spending time beating yourself up at every stop sign.
Don’t turn your life (or your meditation practice) into a chore. You’ll lose out on a lot of joy, and possibly end up with a bad case of “Analysis Paralysis.” Free yourself to just try, and most importantly, to try again.
Who knows? Once you’re untethered from the tiny white checkboxes of doom you might even have enough free time to keep up with all those Taras.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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