More than ever before, the people in my life describe themselves as constantly busy – even overwhelmed. This is especially true of those with kids, and I think it’s one of the main characteristics most of us associate with mothers. We often perceive them as chronically overworked, always giving, and never taking time for themselves. It’s even a recurring theme in the Berenstain Bears books I’ve read so many times to my children: Mama Bear’s work is never done – and that’s why we have Mother’s Day. For this one special day, we express our gratitude and take some things off her plate – because on Monday morning, it’s back to the grind.
Most mothers probably don’t see their responsibilities as a terrible burden, because motherhood is gratifying in so many ways. And yet, when the work of being a householder isn’t optional and there’s no end to it, it can feel stressful. When Mom does take a break, it’s frequently with a mentality of, “I’ll take this 2% of my waking life to relax and recharge so that I can then donate the other 98% to getting stuff done.” It’s so important to examine this perspective, because it holds the key to our freedom (and much more).
Whether you’re a mother or not, if you think of time as categorized into “my time” (meaning the time you spend doing what you enjoy doing) and “not my time” (meaning the time you spend doing what you feel obligated to do), you’re missing a tremendous opportunity.
I had been engaged in various mindfulness practices for some years when I decided to read the Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh’s early work, The Miracle of Mindfulness, and in just the first few pages of the book, I felt like I had an “aha!” moment. Nhất Hạnh describes a revelation that occurred to one of his students – a man with a wife and two kids, all of whom required lots of attention. The man tells his teacher:
In the past I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. . . . But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself! 1
When I think of the mothers I’ve known (and hard-working people of all sorts) who seem unburdened by the fact that life contains a never-ending supply of tasks, I believe they accomplish this because they don’t engage in the practice of categorizing some time as not their own.
Nhất Hạnh said that we die to this moment when we depart from it. What is life without our presence but a bunch of habitual behaviors and recurrent thought patterns? When we withdraw into our minds and do our tasks just to get done with them, we’re not really participating in life anymore. But when we give ourselves completely to whatever we’re engaged in, we find that each moment contains the whole universe.
I know that might sound a little flowery or over-the-top, but I believe that when you get a glimpse of it you’ll know it’s true (perhaps you already have and do). When we make a practice of treating all time as my time, every moment is a rich opportunity. Any second could be profound and beautiful. Devote yourself entirely to what’s happening right now – let it be the most important thing in the world – and notice how it opens up. It deepens. The urgency disappears, the fear melts. The drudgery and sense of obligation dissolve.
To be honest, it takes a lot of work. Becoming mindful for just 10% of your waking life may be 9% more than what you’re currently doing, and that means not only constantly remembering to be mindful (Nhất Hạnh defines mindfulness as “keeping one’s Consciousness alive to the present reality”), but also changing the very persistent habit of giving your attention to the wandering and resistant mind. You can start by giving all of your attention to the experience of inhalation and exhalation for ten breaths. Or three. Or one. Not only is this a good way to practice, but in the long term it will lessen the tendency of your mind to run away with you.
Our ability to stay present can be helped or hindered by what we do in our downtime. Frequently we use this time to engage with media such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, television, or books. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying media, but most of it doesn’t have a positive impact on how you feel and operate in the rest of your life. If you do something to support yourself, you’ll have an easier time staying present when you get back to your schedule.
If you’re a mother – or anyone who feels that your time is not yours – try spending some of your downtime in meditation. I know it doesn’t feel appealing the same way that media – or active engagement with anything – does. In fact, it can feel really uncomfortable to your ego, which is temporarily out of a job. But soon you’ll notice a change in the rest of your life. There’s more space between your consciousness and your mind, and it’s easier to choose not to let your mind take the driver’s seat. And increasingly, you’ll feel that, regardless of the task you’re doing – even a job for someone else that you have no interest in – all time is your time.
Contrary to how it may sound, making all time your time doesn’t mean withdrawing from your activities or doing them in a half-assed way – quite the opposite. It means owning your mind and actions. It means participating fully in what you’ve already chosen to do. And as the child of any fully-present mother could tell you, such presence is a gift to everyone around you.
 Hạnh, N., & Ho, M. (1975). The miracle of mindfulness: An introduction to the practice of meditation. Boston: Beacon Press.