Many years ago I took a three day course based on Stephen Covey’s bestselling book – Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I’ve taken and taught many personally development courses but this was one of the best.
The first day was spent covering the initial basics of ‘being proactive’, ‘beginning with end in mind’, and ‘putting first things first’. It all felt a little obvious and commonsensical and I wasn’t really sure I should even go back for more. However I dragged my skeptical self in and on day two we looked at the next three habits which are to do with our relationship with others – ‘think win-win’, ‘seek first to understand and then to be understood’, and ‘synergize’. I remember being impressed that although the first three seem obvious, and perhaps they are, they are necessary first steps before you can really get anything out of the second three. I wasn’t sure what we going to do on day 3. We’d covered three habits a day for the first two days and there was only one habit left.
Yet I have rarely if ever felt as amazed as I was by day three. This is where the whole class was heading but it is also where everything needs to start. There was a reason it was kept till last and yet it is the first and by far the most important of all the habits. Yes, the others are helpful, but without the last one they’re all extremely limited.
The story behind ‘sharpen the saw’ is about a novice lumberjack who cuts down a lot of trees on his first day but notices that the more experienced lumberjacks cut down more. So the next day he starts earlier but despite working incredibly hard he ends up having cut down less trees than the day before. The next day the same happens and he’s still working after everyone else has quit when one of the experienced loggers asks him how it’s going. He confesses that he doesn’t think he’s cut out for it because he worked longer on day 2, and then longer again on day 3 but he can’t match their output and everyday he is actually cutting down less trees. His colleague smiles and asks – ‘did you stop to sharpen your saw?’.
Meditation is sharpening the saw
Our minds are far from perfect. If yours is, then stop reading this and don’t ever meditate again – you don’t need to.
Our psychology is flawed in numerous ways. Some of it is hard wired and part of being human. We are not wired to be happy, we are wired to survive. Our instincts for survival often involve doing things that will actually make us miserable, but hundreds of thousands of years ago would have helped us stay alive. Things like always being dissatisfied with what we have. Or being constantly focused on what is wrong, what might be wrong, and what might go wrong in the future rather than appreciating what is right. On top of that we have inherited lousy beliefs and ideas from our parents, teachers and society. For example most us know intellectually that money (or fame, or power, or …) won’t make us happy – but deep down we really believe it will and we want it.
We aren’t just broken though. We also have amazing qualities of kindness, compassion, generosity, thoughtfulness, balance and even love. The issue is that the more we just keep going, like the lumberjack, the more we end up acting from our smaller selves and the less we are able to act from the person we believe we are and who we want to be.
Meditation offers us the opportunity to stop running around inside our minds, reacting to every stimulus of our emotions, every social media post, everything our family says or does, every increasingly crazy thing that is happening in our world. We pause. We reset. We get back in touch with who we really are deep down. Our mind, our psychology, our resilience are restored.
No matter what’s going on, how bad your situation is, or how bad the world’s situation is, you are always going to benefit from taking at least a few minutes a day to sharpen your saw.