Breaking the tyranny of the urgent

A key source of anxiety is feeling that there is too little time, and too much to do. Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

Time is a limited resource.  We wake up, and we only have about 16 hours of activity before we sleep again.  During that time window, we have to fit in everything that we wish to do.

Anxiety can arise when we feel unable to compress our needs into the space available.  If you want to make someone anxious, just give them too much to do in too little time.  Their natural conscientiousness will push them to get everything done; and their natural limitations will pull them to stop trying.  The result is an internal war in their minds.

How can we reduce the pressure of the urgent, so that we can breathe again?

In a compressed mind system, there are probably three things that can give, in order to reduce the pressure:

  1. The environment can be changed to remove the external pressure.  In other words, we can leave the pressurised job, the pressurised relationship, the pressurised place.
  2. We can change our priorities.  That is to say, we can stop requiring ourselves to undertake some of the pressurising tasks.  This can be difficult for many people, because they want ‘all the things’!
  3. We can leave environment and priorities as they are, and change our response.  Two people can be doing exactly the same task at the same pace, and one may be in turmoil, and the other at peace.  The different is that one has a difference response to events.

If we are suffering from the tyranny of pressure, then we will always have these three choices:

  1. Resign
  2. Reprioritise our actions
  3. Change response.


Meditation  is essentially a change in response.  It can be particularly useful in circumstances of apparently unendurable external pressure.  This is because it places a shock-absorber between the mind and the circumstance.  The mind is able to remain aware of its context, but without disabling urgency.  The effect is similar to the suspension on a car.  The body of the car is protected from bumps in the road.  In meditation, the bumps in the road are the pressurising situations that demand your attention; the meditation is the suspension.

Meditation can also cause a useful rebalancing of priorities.  In particular, it can stop us ‘wanting all the things’.  If we don’t want so many things, then we are freed from the need to get so busy satisfying all the wants.  We can rest more, waste less energy.

Finally, meditation can change our entire response to life.  One of the most useful meditations is meditation on emptiness.  (There is a more detailed written discussion, and an example of a meditation on emptiness, here [by Lama Zopa Rinpoche].  There is a short video talk of less than three minutes on the subject here [by Doron].  Or there is a medium-sized video chat of about 6 minutes here [by Rupert Spira].)


We live with a perception of limited time.  The threat of pressure is therefore inevitable.

How can we reduce the threat of pressure?  We have three choices:

  1. Remove the pressurising external object (resign)
  2. Deprioritise the pressurising external object (reprioritise our actions)
  3. Change our personal inner response (mindfulness or meditation)