Someone recently asked me, “How do you deal with the stress of a big project?”
Throughout Western society we seem to hold the attitude that, if something is important, we must generate a fearful, stressed-out state of mind about accomplishing it.
How do we get the stress started? By expecting ourselves to produce nothing less than the highest performance and perfect outcomes. These expectations produce only stress for everyone involved, and rarely result in favorable outcomes — in business, at home or school, or anywhere else in our lives.
In my study and training in Zen Buddhist discipline, I encountered a wonderful bit of wisdom that is relevant to our attitude of adding stress as soon as we take on a big project:
“How you do one thing is how you do everything.”
Of course, regarding the superficial aspect of our efforts this statement doesn’t apply. Every step in a project requires a different kind of activity. We don’t do everything at the same speed. And we don’t do everything with the same level of physical exertion. That would be silly and impractical.
This Zen teaching statement is not a one-liner manual of project management!
This wisdom teaching goes much deeper than that. It is pointing toward our deepest attitudes about life. It asks us to look at the very nature of taking action and achieving outcomes.
Throughout our lives we are constantly working with relationships — the relationship to ourselves, to each other and, even when we are alone, to our environment.
In my view, this Zen statement is, first and foremost, urging us to look deeply at how we relate to our life, our body, and our mind.
Are we taking our healthy body, our intelligent mind, and our relatively abundant outer resources for granted? Do we find it easy to complain and are we quick to judge? These behaviors may indicate a sense of entitlement that colors all of our thinking. We may be lacking an important sense of mystery and gratitude about our life and circumstances.
If this is the case, we are easily susceptible to being hard on ourselves, hard on others, and hard on our environment don’t throw that spoon!) whenever things aren’t going our way.
Are we ruled by the belief that we SHOULD get what we want — just because we want it?
This is the natural attitude of young children. Little ones do not yet understand the laws of cause and effect, so we help them learn: “If you run downhill and fall, you can get hurt.” “If you don’t share the toy with your new friend, she may not want to play with you.”
From childhood to adulthood, we must learn that the laws of cause and effect must be accurately followed to get the outcomes you want. We can’t plant lemon seeds and get apples for your trouble, no matter how much you may want that to happen!
If you have a big, important project to accomplish, your assessment of its importance does not affect these laws of cause and effect in the least. You must always act in accordance with them if you are to get the best results.
3 Crucial Things to Appreciate about the Laws of Cause and Effect
1. Recognize that the laws of cause and effect govern ALL activities: mental, emotional, physical, and environmental.
2. All activity is most powerful and functional when the energies involved –– mental, emotional, and physical energies –– are flowing freely, without restraint.
3. What is restraint? Fearful thinking is restraint. Anger, jealousy, and greed are restraint. Worry and blame are restraint. Compulsiveness, distraction (or inability to focus) and anxious speediness are restraint.
All activities of restraint share the same basic flaw: they are all activities by which we squeeze ourselves mentally, emotionally, and physically. And when we squeeze ourselves we also squeeze and harm our environment. How we do one thing is how we do everything.
How and Why to Avoid Squeezing Yourself
- First: Relax! Bring your attention to your body and breath as often as you can. Breathe with gratitude for the gift of life-breath that you are receiving right now. Encourage your busy mind to enjoy taking in this gift of breath, fully and with ease.
- Appreciate the temporary nature of your life. This helps to reset your inner attitude so that you can stay loose and good natured. Remember that your ability to exert yourself is a gift and a wonder. Start today to master the ability to relax into every kind of activity you engage in. How you do one thing is how you do everything.
- Remember that nothing is required. Everything is chosen. Own your choices. And remember that you are at your best when you stay in the flow of your energies, free of squeezing.
- You will easily stay inspired to release squeezing when you remember that squeezing is its own stand-alone activity. Squeezing yourself never contributes energy or clarity to your efforts. It is always a drain and disruptor of your flow.
When you make these simple, verifiable insights your guiding principles, you will develop the ability to stay mentally and emotionally cheerful, creative, and kind. You will be able to maintain this cheerful, kind attitude even if your projects are not accomplished exactly as you had hoped.
Projects that fail to meet expectations don’t mean you are a failure. They are not a demand or requirement that you take negative actions mentally, emotionally, or physically. Such outcomes are simply giving you the gift of feedback. They let you know that you need to learn more about how to relate to the laws of cause and effect in order to accomplish your expectations.
In a Nutshell – My Version of This Zen Aphorism
Who knows if wonderful wisdom is accurately quoted? Who says it can’t be modified to be more easily understood?
Considering this Zen aphorism, I understand it more clearly when I read it as,
“How you do THE ONE THING is how you do everything.”
How I do the one “inner” thing determines how I relate to everything else. What is “the one thing”? It is our attitude toward ourselves –– our relationship to the one we are with all the time.
If I take my life for granted and disregard my value as a human being, if I disregard my feelings, this is how I will treat everyone and everything else, too.
If I make sure that “the one thing” is to practice loving, encouraging self regard –– if I do this with gratitude and wonder for the gift of life moment by moment –– that attitude will infuse everything I do with uplifting energy.
Everything we do flows from and is colored by our inner state of self relationship. May you find it easier and easier to do The One (loving) Thing.