The Paradox of Urgency

Luang Por Pasanno • October 2013

We may feel there exists a paradox or inconsistency having to do with some of the teachings that guide our spiritual practice and how we conduct our daily lives. First we’re told it’s important to have a sense of urgency, and then we’re told to relax, let go, and cultivate a feeling of spaciousness.

On one side, the Buddha encourages us to cultivate the quality of saṃvega, which is usually translated as a sense of spiritual urgency. It’s the recognition that life is short and everything is uncertain, so we need to take this practice seriously. We urgently need to apply our attention and effort in order to fulfill the teachings and not miss out on the opportunity we have.

On the other side, we need to learn how to relax and not get caught up in the feeling of urgency. We tend to pile stuff onto ourselves, thinking, I have to get this done and that done. Or we might feel an urgency with regard to future planning, We have to have a budget meeting, and we have to have an insurance meeting, and we have to have a business meeting, and . . . This agitating sort of urgency can arise not only with our chores and duties, but with our internal spiritual practice as well, I have to get my mindfulness of breathing straight, and I have to keep my reflections going, and . . . With this sense of urgency in trying to do everything all at once, we end up becoming frantic and, ironically, very little gets done well or efficiently—it really doesn’t work. So instead we can remind ourselves, Hey, it’s just one thing at a time, one moment at a time, one breath at a time. We can learn to create some space for ourselves and not carry the “I have to” tendency around with us, nor the impulse that tells us that everything is so urgent.

As we reflect on these seemingly paradoxical qualities of urgency and spaciousness, we may find that they are not inconsistent after all. We can apply both of them in our practice, with a sense of balance, emphasizing one or the other depending on the circumstances. In doing so, we need to come from a place of clarity and steadiness. Clarity is needed to anchor spaciousness and letting go, and to guide those actions that arise out of a sense of urgency. Steadiness is needed to bring good results from those actions, and to keep spaciousness from turning into spacing out. This place of clarity and steadiness is where paradoxes like these dissolve and fade away.