Focus on the Essential and Escape the “Tyranny” of 1000 Urgent Things

Dear friends,

The lives of everyone in the global community have been moving faster over the past so many years. Gone are the days of peaceful contemplation. Instead, the average person’s life is filled with small and large projects, most of them unessential. We’re flooded with information, news, conversation, jobs, activities, commitments, duties, relationships, meetings, travel, and we have too much access to the internet. As our lives speed by, the list of things we think we have to do seems to only get longer and create more stress.

Can anyone please tell me what answering millions of e-mails and doing all the many other things that steal energy, bring little happiness, and are based on a small vision have to do with the purpose of the human form of life?

Yet thousands of such things demand our attention. If we’re not careful these things can so totally occupy us that they suffocate our ability to think and feel deeply.

I once met a monk who carefully stored all his possessions in a single small travel bag. With an open smile on his face he told me one day, “If I don’t look through this bag every three months and throw out what’s unnecessary, my bag will either burst or I will have to buy a second one.” After a pause, he added, “We have to do the same thing in our lives. We have to regularly clean the house. If we don’t, we’ll either explode or live out our lives and then get a new body with even more entanglement attached to it.

I think all of us know what the monk means. His message is simple: prioritize, concentrate on what is essential and empowering, and know that if you don’t, trouble awaits.

Do you know how circus animal trainers drill dangerous beasts? They paralyze the animals’ willpower. The trainer enters the cage where a hungry and powerful tiger crouches. The trainer carries with him a chair that has four identical legs. The tiger is paralyzed. Why? Because it can’t prioritize; it can’t decide which of the four legs it should attack first. This gives the animal trainer an edge of authority and control. Gradually, the tiger is taught that even to eat it must please the trainer.

Many of us are similarly paralyzed, overwhelmed by the one thousand urgent things on our list, each of which seems equally important. We can’t decide what to do first, or even what we should simply ignore. Lack of prioritizing causes paralysis. When we lose the natural ability to discriminate between the important and the less important, our life’s foundation seems off and we become lost. The first thing that we forget and therefore fail to act on is that we are an eternal blissful part of God, and that from the perspective of eternity, nothing in this world, good or bad, is worth becoming a slave to.

How to Identify Priorities
The Srimad-Bhagavatam gives us some interesting spiritual advice on prioritizing by instructing us on what comes first: “There is no stronger obstruction to one’s self-interest than thinking other subject matters to be more pleasing than one’s own self-realization.” (SB 4.22.32) Srila Prabhupada clarifies in his purport to this verse that by “self-realization” the Bhagavatam is referring to realizing one’s individual self along with the Self of the self, Sri Krsna.

There are two simple techniques I use to help me find my own priorities:

I ask myself again and again: “What is the one activity I am presently not doing but know I should be doing – an activity that will change my life for the better?”

When I find an answer, perhaps relating to my spiritual practice, I then turn to other areas such as health or relationships and ask the question again. I find the results of this technique amazing and inspiring.

I mentally visit the end of my life and then look back from there. When we are in the midst of one thousand small things, we tend to see only what is directly in front of us. We’re like a person who takes a walk in the beauty of nature but who stares only at the path directly before us – until we smash our head on a low-hanging branch. When I look back at my life from the standpoint of death, however, I find myself caring only about the big things: relationships, selfless service, moments that allow me to forgive or to feel spiritually fulfilled or to express compassion.

These are the things we should concentrate on while we have the strength, intelligence, and open heart to do so. These types of bigger-picture accomplishments are the essential and energy-filled projects we should prioritize out of the millions of opportunities to act that life gives us. And we should do them now – because one thing you notice when you’re dying is that there really is only the “now.”

The Benefit of Prioritizing
Prioritizing gives birth to two types of strength in us:

The strength to say no to all that is unimportant and to throw it out like the unnecessary junk that it is.

The strength to do what is important and to reach our ultimate spiritual goal.

I wish all of us (myself included) the mercy and energy that comes from two types of nectarean fruit:

samsara-visa-vrksasya dve hy eva rasavat phale
kavyamrta-rasavadah sangamah saj-janaih saj-janaih saha

“On the poisonous tree of this world of repeated birth and death, there are only two tasty and sweet fruits: nectarean poetical compositions [like the Srimad-Bhagavatam] and association with saintly people.”
(From the Kavya literature, specific source unknown)

These two sources of nectar – saints and holy books – help us stop the waves of material desires that flood our lives and wash our attention to our real self-interest: service to the lotus feet of the Lord. Those lotus feet are the suitable boats for crossing the dangerous ocean of material illusion.

Let me end with an old poem of mine, which expresses my point in a helpful way:

Don’t Trust Me

O my Lord
I think You know that I love only You,
although I pretend to love other people and things.
I think You know that when I am sad
it’s because I feel separated from You,
although if I am asked
I would give other reasons.
When I cry, it’s always because of missing You,
although my tears carry other names.

I think You also know
that I am only looking for You,
although I seem to be looking for other persons and things.

Yes, I am a divided soul,
searching for something in the east,
while going west.
I am a helpless soul,
forced by some other agent long ago
to play the double life of a devotee and a cheater.

But do You know why I am writing You this?
It’s because I want Your special mercy.
Don’t believe my acts,
don’t trust my words,
but look deep into my heart
and You will see Your own beautiful image.

Sacinandana Swami

Under the Banyan Tree is a regular column featuring the writing of Sacinandana Swami.

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