Do Freely

Do Freely

What are you doing?

The Practice:
Do freely.


Most people spend most minutes of most days doing one thing after another. I sure do. Typing these words is a kind of doing, as is driving to work, making dinner, brushing one’s teeth, or putting the kids to bed. For all the “labor-saving” devices of the past 50 years – dishwashers, phone machines, word processors, etc. – most of us are laboring more, not less. For example, in terms of employment, the average workweek in America has gotten longer over the past 50 years. Meet someone and ask how he or she is doing; the answer is likely: “busy.” Doing is a huge part of life, yet we don’t usually bring much awareness or wisdom to it.

Sometimes doing feels good. There could be a sense of flow in everyday activities, pleasure in your own skillfulness or competence, or fulfillment in helping others.

But often doing feels numb, or worse: on your feet for hours, grinding through repetitive tasks, zipping from one email to another, worried about performance, pressured and driven. In America and elsewhere, the relentless pace of stressful doing gradually wears down mental and physical health and fuels conflicts with others. It’s a big problem, with many costs.

How does your own doing generally feel for you?

Personally, I’m a big-time do-er. Like most of us, I could and should do at least a little less and spend more time just being rather than doing. But meanwhile, we still have a lot to do, much if not all of it toward wholesome ends, from putting bread on the table and helping with homework to expressing our abilities and helping the world be a better place.

So the crux is not so much the doing itself but our relationship to it. How can we do what we do without getting pressed and stressed, contracted, and driven about it?

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For me, the essence of the answer is to do freely – to feel at ease in the experience of doing, not trapped or bound up in it. Here are some things that have been helping me with this.

Keep returning to the high-priority things – like taking care of your health, making room in your heart for others, or protecting time for the important but not urgent tasks at work – and let the little ones go. In the old saying: If you’re filling a bucket, put the big rocks in first.

Feeling responsible for what you don’t have the power to accomplish is doomed, plus bad for you and others.

Be mindful of the sense of pressure. It’s a clear sign that you’re getting caught up in doing. When you notice this, exhale slowly. See if you can keep on doing it – even quickly – while also feeling more relaxed and at ease.

Do one thing at a time. Bring mindfulness – sustained moment-to-moment awareness – into the doing. Develop this steadiness of mind, this continuity of presence, through activities like meditation, making art or music, yoga, or committing to stay focused in everyday activities such as brushing a child’s hair.

Feel the completion as you finish each thing you do. For instance, take a second to notice that you have placed a plate in the dishwasher before moving on to the next dish; after arriving at work, let it land that this part of your day is now behind you; after talking with a friend, let the experience reverberate in your mind for a breath.

Try to experience doing as a living. For me, this feels like using a computer or driving a car, or talking with someone as simply being an animal – a friend once called me “a large male mammal” – moving through its day. The sense of living then moves to the foreground, with doing as a matter-of-fact, no-big-deal expression of embodied life. It’s a subtle shift but a powerful one.

See if you can regard experiences of doing as “empty”: made up of many parts based on many causes that come and go transiently, so that any single experience – lifting a spoon to your mouth, making a bed, reading a book – is “empty” of absolute self-existence. Like the suggestion above, this one is also subtle, yet as this felt recognition of the emptiness of experiences of doing grows in you, you’ll find that you feel freer in them and take them less personally.

Last, make the offering (you might like the JOT that focused on this particular practice). All you can do is the best you can do: you can tend to the causes, but the results are out of your hands. For example, all you can do is say what is in your heart as sincerely and skillfully as you can, but what others do with that in their own minds is up to them, not you.

In sum, simple activities such as brushing one’s teeth, or more complex ones such as running a meeting or writing a report, are an opportunity right under our noses, many times a day, to come into mindful presence, feel freer, and be at peace.

Know Someone Who Could Do Things More Freely?

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Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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