It’s now been only a couple of months since I had one of these little epiphanies on life that somehow change your perspective forever. I realized for the first time that every one of us is running around with an endless mental checklist of things to do in his life. I know, what a mundane insight, but bear with me, there is more.
Not only did I realize that these To-Do lists somehow get build into our minds by society very, very early in life, but they also never run empty of further important items to cross off. Ever.
We start out when we are really young and the first items all evolve around ‘getting bigger’. Then the pressure starts. First it is just ‘learning to walk’ or to talk, but soon enough real life kicks in and the list keeps growing and growing. ‘Learn to read’, ‘learn to write’. ‘Learn a language’. ‘Learn math’. Our society loves to give these lists to children earlier and earlier with every generation.
I was really shocked to learn that my son at the age of eight already put ‘have good grades’ on this private list all by himself. He told me so quite matter-of-factly, because he wants to be able to study medicine. I had no idea. At his age my list had items like ‘get more Lego bricks’.
Soon his list will have real heavy items like: ‘Finish school’, ‘find a university’, ‘get a job’ and so on and so on. There is not a problem with having lists like this per se. It’s useful to know where you are and where you want to go. Also, most people I meet have rather short lists in their head anyway. It’s usually pretty predictable, like ‘get a degree’, ‘meet The One’, ‘have a family’, ‘buy a house’ and ‘ get more money’, etc. This is all neither new or surprising.
What shocked me was to learn that we really never get done with our lists. Not only that, we really hate not having items on the list, too. As soon as, we cross enough things of our list, we immediately come up with new ones to fill the empty space. There is always more stuff to do. I observe the corresponding behavior in the people around me all the time. As soon as someone is free of some important items of his internal list, there is almost immediately the compulsion to run and find something else to do. It’s like not doing something is the enemy. If a spot on the list opens up, it will get filled as fast as possible. One partner is out, another one gets in. Partner is happy, get a child. Getting a child is too scary, buy a dog. Nothing else to do? Get a new car. Got a car and a dog and a child? Well, clearly the house is to small now!
What keeps amazing me is the fact that people rush to fill up their list, even is there is no real reason to do so. The moment one project is finished another one has to start, no matter what. Even if it is complete nonsense. Seriously, it is so obvious, that anyone should notice. However, there is a clever trick. People go out of their way to create more items than they will be able to handle. This prevents you from standing still long enough to realize what you are doing.
From a standpoint of Buddhist psychology this behavior is obviously just another addiction. This form of addiction is incredibly common in the West although almost never talked about in Buddhist circles. In Buddhism the technical term would be bhava tanha. The craving for becoming. With bhava tanha, it is really not that important, what it is, that’s on your list. It is more the fact that there is always yet another thing to strive for.
Reaching whatever you run towards is therefore never a satisfying accomplishment, since it only serves as a placeholder until the next craving comes around. Most of the times we really don’t want to reach our goal anyway, since we unconsciously know very well that we don’t really get anything out of it. Remember, we are addicted to the running, not the arriving.
It’s a very effective strategy if you never want to come to a place of peace and equanimity. I know people who spend their entire life just avoiding to stand still. They just keep running full speed from one point on their list to the next. And everything is always important. If someone questions their priorities, they just turn up the drama-volume. Sooner or later their bhava tanha gets so worse that they forget how to stop and watch altogether. They cannot stop any more, just to breath and wait until their heart starts beating again, because even the idea of not running throws them into a full blown panic attack. I actually have compassion for those people in their hamster wheels.
Not doing anything while everyone around you keeps themselves busy to the point of self destruction is very, very hard.
Deliberately keeping things of your list is frightening.
Society will not like you, to the point of attacking you – if you start throwing things of your list for being stupid.
Staring at an empty list and realizing that there >really is nothing to do< is the very place where you can find wisdom.
It’s quite peaceful.