All the “spills” we create—not just with our hands but in the ocean of personal relationships as well—begin in our own mind. Distracted by the many things we have to do in a brief time, our attention wanders away from taking care of the activity in front of it, becoming concerned instead for finishing the task as quickly as it can so it can move on to another item on its list of priorities. Giving in to distraction, we give up caring about the activity we are doing. And in a subtle but real way, when we do that we also give up caring about our self, about the value of the effort we are making with our life.

Perhaps like never before, a major concern these busy and stressful days is for the lack of time—time to do everything that needs to be done, to do it “on time,” and to do it in a quality way. But the real problem for us is not about the scarcity of time— which we can, after all, learn to manage through a variety of strategies. Instead, the real source of suffering is the feeling that “I must get on to something else; this activity is taking too much time.” When we have this attitude, we really don’t know what we are doing—our mind is somewhere else, not focused on what it earlier decided it needs to take care of. If we don’t know what we are doing, how can we be our self? If our mind is somewhere else, it means we are trying to be someone else, not who we are in the present moment. However, by practicing awareness, we can train ourselves to respond to distractions in a positive way and increase our capacity to give full attention to the task or relationship before us.

The quiet, empty space of zazen reveals the mind’s addiction to imagining the future and reminiscing about the past. It helps us understand how dwelling in a time other than the present starts to churn the ego: anxieties arise, desires become distractions, and to do things well is nearly impossible. But when there is no idea of time, there are no expectations, and desires do not become a problem.

Meditation teaches us to be wary of allowing ideas of time to interfere with our activity. Through experience, we discover how not to lose our self, but instead to be fully engaged in the “doing” of whatever it is we decided that we must do. Awareness practice is like any other skill-building activity. It is not meant to be casual, or occasional, or reserved for only when convenient.

By setting aside ideas of how productive or efficient we are in our use of time, we can take time to take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Meditation is the best way to “manage” time, the best way to prevent spills. Spilling something and making a mess can be a signal that we are too concerned about time and all the things we have to do. Developing the skill to recognize that we are distracted and to return the mind to awareness of the present moment enables us to appreciate our self in all activities.

From Joyously Through the Days by Les Kaye, © 2011. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications.