The Art of Leaving Things Undone

"The truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen." - Pema Chödrön

Is the laundry ever really done? The myth of Sisyphus shows a man damned to eternally rolling a rock up a hill only to lose his grip at the top and watch it roll back down. It’s a metaphor, of course, for laundry and for life. Because what is ever really completed in the cycle of birth and death and regeneration?

But we see Sisyphus as a tragic figure. No one wants to imagine their rock going back downhill. We make sense of the world in black or white and right or wrong. We want stability because it helps us survive in an uncertain world.

This is why leaving things undone is an art, spiritual practice or a discipline. If we can accept that things unravel and break down; that projects may remain unfinished and unstarted; that we lose our jobs or our loves or our health, then we can better accept life itself and find inner peace and joy.

We Westerners are trained to think that surrendering to, or living with the undone or unresolved, is a kind of quitting. We tend to believe there is only value in overcoming and fixing things that lay in pieces. Yet, there is great merit in surrendering to what is undone and uncertain.

We can and we should consider holding conflicting ideas and realities in mind and resisting forced black and white ideals. Taoists call this dialectical thinking, which calls forth the image of Yin and Yang and the idea of holding contradictory thoughts in our minds. The issue with refusing to sit with contradiction and life’s undone work, is that forcing things into resolution is a perfection distraction that keeps you from moving your life forward in meaningful ways.

So how do you get comfortable with leaving things undone?

Consider and Embrace your Limitations

We don’t have to overcome all our limitations because sometimes it’s impossible. And when that is the case, embracing limits and accepting and using them is what truly matters. You don’t ever need to pretend your imperfections don’t exist. Limits define us like the bank of a river defines the water’s path. Strong rock will not give in and soft rock gives way slowly, creating unique flow and helping the river meander in interesting ways.

Prioritize Being

Westerners are productive. We are doing more than being. This can manifest as a busy-ness overdrive that steals away what really matters to us in life. Getting disciplined and comfortable about the undone and uncertain means making space for what matters. No need to distract yourself with productivity when you’re anxious with an undone reality. Simply let it be and focus on what matters in the moment. Stop spinning your wheels on resolution fantasies.

Consider Living into “The Undone” a Discipline

Practice managing the anxiety that comes with life’s uncertainty, fear and risk. Sit and make friends with it through meditation, awareness, mindfulness and other means. Realize that rushing things to resolution is not always ideal, productive or admirable. The undone is a lesson in healing and moving forward through uncertainty, and life is uncertain, so cultivate patience.

And finally, think of life as a car trip. When you want things to remain stable, perfect and resolved, you may find yourself very focused on the car itself because it can be perfect, well controlled, and you can make and keep it a high-functioning machine. You can replace each part that shows wear; shine the dash and keep the windows spotless. But all this focus on resolution and certainty will not actually GET you anywhere in the car.

To start the car and go, you must be okay with the car hitting a bump and falling apart. You must let it get dirty and not know when it can be clean again. Because this is life -- the fray and unravel -- and avoiding these moments for a constantly solid experience is a grand short change.

Rocky Lewis
Rocky Lewis