Human Beings, Humans Doing

It’s that time again, two or three weeks into the new year, when we start to struggle with some of the resolutions we made. Most people who set goals for a coming year begin with all the things they want to accomplish: complete this project, start that new one, reach this financial goal, buy that car and so forth. Their initial objectives tend to be material and external. Then, perhaps stimulated by the warm feeling of the holidays or the extra pounds they put on, they turn to inner, more spiritual goals. They resolve to take better care of their body and soul, to eat healthier and spend more time with their kids, to take a silent retreat, meditate, attend worship services, sign up for yoga classes, and so forth.

You know what happens next. The first things to go are the resolutions having to do with spiritual well-being. All those items on our To Do lists—call these people, set those meetings, complete this task, start that project, buy this, sell that, and on and on—take precedence. Doing triumphs over being. Outer objectives command our attention and our time, taking on an urgency beyond what is rational or real, because we get suckered into the illusion that our happiness depends on them. Before long, we have too much to do in too little time, and the goal of nurturing our souls is forgotten like yesterday’s junk mail.

Until, that is, we come down with a stress-related illness, or a relationship tanks, or our kids get into trouble because we neglected them, or we wake up one morning and realize that, despite our accomplishments, we’re wallowing in discontent and worry. That moment, however, might come too late, and the consequences may be unavoidable.

What can we do to make sure we attend to our inner lives and make time for the things that sow the seeds of inner peace and lift us higher? One practice I’ve found useful is to supplement your To Do list with a To Be list.

The idea is simple. Whether it’s on a Day Timer, a calendar, a Palm Pilot or scraps of paper, almost everyone has at least one To Do list, and some of us have several of them. The problem is, spiritually nurturing items are either excluded altogether or buried among all the seemingly urgent activities, and when we notice them—if we see them at all—we think, “I’ll deal with that later, but first I have to attend to this and that.” So, why not have a separate To Be list? In fact, why not have more than one?

A good way to begin is to set aside some time to brainstorm, by yourself or with loved ones who care about your well-being. Write down all the things that rejuvenate your body, soothe your emotions and nurture your spirit. Your list should include things you already do, things you used to do and things you would do if you had the time or resources. Don’t leave anything out; practical considerations should not enter the picture at this stage. Just don’t include anything having to do with work, career or material aspirations (leave those for your To Do list).

By the time you’re done, you should have quite a long list, one that includes not only explicitly spiritual items such as meditation and prayer, but body-oriented entries—-going to the gym, hiking, tai chi classes, etc.—-solo activities and communal activities, serious endeavors and things that are just plain fun. Spiritual development, after all, is a holistic enterprise, not something that’s limited to so-called spiritual practices, and there is no reason it can’t be enjoyable and even entertaining. If you think of recreation as re-creation, as in creating yourself anew, and if enjoyment means being in joy, then having fun can transcend mere pleasure and enter the realm of the sublime.

Once you get everything on paper, you might want to break it down into three or four separate lists: one for things you can do in five minutes or less; one for things that take five minutes to half an hour; one for things that take a half hour to a day; and one for longer items, such as retreats, vacations and pilgrimages. Some items, of course, might go in more than one list. For example, breathing exercises can be a terrific way to get calm and centered in just a few seconds, but they can also be done for longer periods of time. Ditto yoga postures, prayer, reading poetry or sacred texts, and many other activities. Listening to music, for instance: you can take a break, put on a headset and refresh yourself with one song—or settle down for a whole CD, or go to a concert, or a weekend jazz festival. You can meditate for a few minutes, or twenty, or an hour, or go on a long retreat. You get the picture. (When I ask groups to brainstorm about this, someone invariably calls out “Have sex.” To which someone else retorts, “Yeah, but which list do you put it on?”)

Ideally, To Be lists should be on an equal footing with To Do lists—-just as accessible and just as visible. This raises the status of those soul-sustaining activities: instead of being things you might get around to one of these days if you happen to remember them, they become integral components of everyday life. When you come to an impass at work, or your energy sinks or your spirits sag, a glance at your To Be list will give you some choices: “Oh, right, I can dance around the office for a few minutes, or walk mindfully around the block or just take a few deep breaths.”

Be aware that you might have a tendency to demote your To Be list to inferior status, as if it contained luxury items while the stuff on your To Do list are necessities. Don’t believe it. Not only is the care and feeding of your soul of utmost importance in and of itself, but it also makes the flow of practical endeavors smoother and more effective. Being precedes doing. Life flows from the inner to the outer: we feel, then we think, then we act. That’s why checking off the items on your To Be list will help you manage the tasks on your To Do list and feel more fulfilled in the process.

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Written by Philip Goldberg

Explore Wellness in 2021