I work with busy people. Women and men, old and young. For some, our weekly or twice-weekly yoga sessions are the only times of the week they allow time and space for themselves, to tend to their own needs, so inundated are they with work, kids and the obligations those spheres entail. Some, I’m sure, don’t make time (because they don’t believe they have the time) to even scan, much less read my blog posts and newsletters.
I gave one of my particularly “time-plagued” students a copy of Brigid Schulte’s “Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.” Maybe you heard Teri Gross interview Schulte about it on “Fresh Aire” a few years back. The book sat untouched on the desk in the room where we practice for months. We talked and joked about that fact. It’s not an elephant in the room (and on the other hand, of course it is). I told her I was going to borrow it back from her so I could present here some of the wisdom this book has to offer. Because if there is one thing our yoga practice can show us it is that we have all the time we need for what we have erroneously come to think of as “extras” or luxuries and to deny ourselves the importance of consistent self-care – time apart from obligations – is to create a void where anxiety, stress and exhaustion step in. Perhaps more importantly, guilt around obligations perpetuates a willed denial of the soul of who we truly are.
“The way you live your days is the way you live your life.” – Annie Dillard
How did we as a culture arrive at this moment where not only do we worship “busyness” (disguised as “productivity”) but also some elusive, unattainable idea of the “perfect family?” How is it possible that we are working more than ever, but also spending more time actively parenting? More time than when most women stayed at home to child-rear? Schulte digs deep into the time management research, as well as the arcs of American post-war attitudes around economics and feminism. As highly as we have come to value the workplace and women’s places in it, we still place the majority of the burden for family management on women, and women often eagerly accept it. Even when “sharing” responsibilities with a partner often equates to the woman delegating tasks to spouses and children, rather than cultivating a truly co-equal context where all members of the family are accountable.
This “cult” of family is unhelpfully mirrored or paralleled in many an American workplace, where the notion of “productivity” has become competitive sport. Combine this mentality with outdated and unsupportive family leave and flexible work policies and it’s no wonder that families, and especially women, are set up for failure. Women squeeze in time for themselves in tiny pieces – the author calls her own “time confetti” – where their obligations to work and family are still primary. Any time that’s “leftover” is what she’s left with and even then, she feels guilty for having it.
This guilt couples with an ever decreasing cultural valuing of the idea of “leisure.” A startling example given by Schulte comes from an interview with a representative of a company that consults for the leisure industry. The trend that began with companies geared toward outdoor recreation for a period of week or longer kept seeing that time window shrink first to a four day weekend, then down to half a day, and finally to what they could convince people to do in 45 minutes. That’s right: the illusion of time pressure has shrunk the window of what we think is an acceptable level of time to ourselves from a week to less than an hour.
What is “leisure?” Does the definition carry for you just a whiff of “indulgence?” How about “idle” or “frivolous?” Again, culture shifts and our mindsets shift right along. I love this idea of leisure, which Schulte credits to leisure researcher Ben Hunnicut:
“…simply being open to the wonder and marvel of the present. ‘The miracle of now,’ he calls it, to choose to do something with no other aim than that it refreshes the soul, or to choose to do nothing at all. To just be and feel fully alive. The high-minded Greeks called leisure skole. Like school, they considered it a time for learning and cultivating oneself and one’s passions. It is a time not just for play, recreation and connection with others but also for meditation, reflection and deep thought.”
We denigrate the idea of leisure at our peril. When we cultify work, when work becomes our “religion,” leisure becomes something we view as trivialized and silly. According to Schulte and Hunnicut:
“Without time to reflect, to live fully present in the moment and face what is transcendent about our lives, Hunnicutt says, we are doomed to live in purposeless and banal busyness. ‘Then we starve the capacity we have to love,’ he said. ‘It creates this “unquiet heart,” as Saint Augustine said, that is ever desperate for fulfillment.”
Schulte goes on to discuss how depriving our brains of any kind of pause, reflection, stimulation, creativity, imagination, or rest combined with a relentless focus on work, productivity, and the anxiety-ridden form of parenting so prevalent today actually shrinks our gray matter. When our primitive amygdala lights up in response to stress, our prefrontal cortex shuts down; when stress is chronic, it literally starts to shrink. When you stop to consider the additional pressures facing women both at home and at work and the cultural conditioning that tells a woman that time for herself is, in her own words “ignoring her responsibilities” – she’s being irresponsible to those who depend on her – then we can see how we’ve become complicit in our own burdening of ourselves.
In subsequent chapters of the book Schulte dissects the cultures of work and love, again highlighting the dilemmas but also offering up some bright spots, some reactions against this loss of self, for both women and men; mothers and fathers. Because as she points out, the “overwhelm” doesn’t just affect women, it effects everyone and it affects the culture and the economy. Our attitudes around women and work haven’t shifted dramatically enough yet to get us all out of the weeds, but there are individuals, meetups and even organizations stepping forward to reclaim time, and foster respect for a new kind of productivity without micromanaging and worshipping “face time.” If you work for a company that is already taking real steps to honor that, and you already have the time to parent and take care of your own needs, consider yourself lucky. The rest of the country still needs to catch up.
In the last part of the book, Schulte talks about the importance of play and “Time Serenity.” And she’s not talking about more time for your kids to play without helicoptering them; she’s talking about play for you. Play for your partner or spouse. It can be structured – typically it has to be, because we’ve forgotten what spontaneity is all about. But reclaiming time without obligation is about learning to let go. It’s about discovery of the world, of yourself. So attitude is important. Yoga practice or attending a yoga class (or any activity that connects your mind/body) can be “play” if we can let go of it as just another one of many “obligations” we have to this idea of “health” that we “should” all be subscribing to.
And here, too women face more of the uphill battle than men, considering the fact the “leisure” is ingrained in our culture as something mainly men are entitled to. Historically when women had time to pursue the arts, charity, writing, or simply to “be” that time was time given to them by their husbands, who maintained the power to earn. Our work ethic is so deeply embedded that it has always pressured women to care-take, to assume obligation and responsibility to family, without a thought that she was ever entitled to time alone, time to rest or to play. The idea that women have the same right to pursue “leisure” as men is new. We don’t have historical precedent. Which is precisely why so many women find it difficult to come to terms with the idea. To do so even today is practically “subversive.” And that difficulty, as Schulte points out, is passed on to daughters, who learn their ideas about the value of leisure from their mothers.
It has become too easy to fall back on “busyness.” Work, take care of family, fill your calendar with “activities.” But if you take a moment and look at your week or your month, how much of all that activity is personally satisfying? It makes sense to me that the idea of having free time produces fear and anxiety. Come up against your own deepest values, wishes and sense of self? Schulte gives examples of this, with our easiest remedy being to stay “heroically” busy, or to turn to television. It’s important to note, too the result of this indecision: an almost unconscious, chronic sense of ambivalence. Of a very real “not knowing” what’s important to your life in the moment.
One of the most effective strategies for Schulte was to start “noticing”: the overwhelm, the inner critic, the sense of never being good enough to do good work. Notice the self-defeating attitude, notice the pressure that creates all of that. Her final chapter, “Toward Time Serenity” is about noticing, about “now.” And so the efficacy of stopping to observe breath, and to watch the overwhelm without engaging it or judging yourself about it is one of healthiest things you can do to start to cope with it. I didn’t know the Greeks had a concept of time called “kairos” (as opposed to chronos, the idea of time we can’t seem to escape), which Schulte describes as “time of the ‘right moment,’ the eternal now, when time is not a number on a dial but the enormity of the experience inside it.” If we could learn to shift our awareness, cultivate an attitude that can pause and appreciate presence, we can tame the overwhelm.
We practice this on the yoga mat, consciously connecting breath to body. And we can’t emphasize enough the value of shifting that mat-focused knowing out into the rest of our lives.