Tuesday, 7 December 2010

One Thing at a Time

The Student asked, 'What is Zen?' the Zen Master replied, 'Zen is doing one thing at a time.' Unknown

Today, as I walked along the snowy pavements for my usual 30 minute trek to work, I got a lot of things done.

In my head, I composed 5 e-mails, considered various responses and their likelihood and composed a further 15 replies depending on the nature of the response. 

At the same time, the sun, golden and smoldering was furtively edging above the horizon, casting a dancing beam of sunlight through the snow laden trees. I didn’t see it.

In my head, I talked with 3 people to get some important information, I made 2 phone calls and replied to 4 text messages. 

At the same time, I passed through the park and a plump red robin sung its merry tune with all its might, every warble an invitation to seek him out, to cast my eyes on this bundle of joy and feathers. I didn’t hear him.

In my head, I tidied my desk, I organized the files on my computer, I bought my lunch and had afternoon coffee. 

At the same time, my feet crunched on the soft snow, powder white, like sand on a paradise beach. With every step, I molded, squeezed and pressed new tracks on a virgin white landscape. My steps, I didn’t feel them.

Where was I? I was lost in my head and it’s a bad habit to get into!

Sadly, when I got to work, I still had to write those emails, I still had to have those conversations and I still had to do the tidying. All I had achieved was missing the beauty of the moment, a moment I can never have back.

Getting stuck in our head can be a vicious cycle, Thoughts generate thoughts generate thoughts. They may well be good thoughts, exciting opportunities, something we’re pleased with. If we let them run riot though, they tend to wear us out.   

The endless cycle of thoughts leaves us feeling stressed and questioning:  ‘Is it such a good opportunity after all?’, ‘Should I really be pleased, maybe it’s too early to tell?’, and on and on and on.

The Zen Master was spot on when he said that 'Zen is doing one thing at a time’. So simple, yet so hard.

I think there are two important aspects to getting out of the cycle of thoughts and into the moment:

1) Recognize when we’ve left the present moment.

Feeling stressed, angry, upset? They are all signs we’ve left the present moment. Teeth gritted, shoulders hunched, holding our breath? All signs we’re lost in thought.

2) Come back to the present.

For me the quickest and easiest way to do that is to just pay attention to one of the senses. 

For example, when I’m walking and I realize I’m lost in thought, I simply listen. It’s amazing what you can hear when you really listen, the change rattling in someone’s pocket, a bird singing, even the sound of the passing traffic has a richness to it when you really listen.

In the same way we could choose to pay attention to what we’re seeing or what sensations we are feeling. 

When we pay attention to one thing at a time, we start to open up and experience the world with a new clarity. That clarity can touch everything we do.

For me, it takes constant practice, constant reminders but I really believe it’s something worthwhile. In the modern world of multitasking, overstimulation and distractions, mastering the art of ‘doing one thing at a time‘ is more valuable than ever.

Image courtesy of Vicky Brock 


  1. adorei td que li...suas palavras vieram direto ao meu coração, pq sou ansiosa e nao consigo fazer uma coisa só ao msm tempo...e com certeza deixo de admirar mt coisa por isso...obrigada por suas belas palavras ,,,elas me ajudam a refletir melhor sobre a vida...

  2. Come back to the present.
    First, you need to close cycles in the past.
    However simple it may be there was a quote from King Fu Panda...

    "Quit, don't quit? Noodles, don't noodles? You are too concerned about what was and what will be. There is a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the "present."

    I live and mourn the past too much, you step into the future too much.
    Maybe we can learn the half way.