I was talking to my friend Nona a while back about a concept she learned about on a meditation retreat. "Going through life," she said, "we carry this basket. In it is a pile of rocks. There are big rocks and little rocks. The basket can only hold so many rocks; there's not room for any more. The big rocks are the things we need in life to sustain us and keep us connected to the core of who we are. They're different for everyone, and they change over time, but they're the things we hold most dear, the things we do in order to feel centered and truly alive. The little rocks are the things we all have to do to keep life going: earning money, doing the laundry, taking the car in for new tires, remembering doctors appointments, getting dinner on the table, doing homework-the stuff on our never-ending to-do lists."
Nona explained that our job as spiritually evolving human beings is to figure out what our big rocks are and to make sure we have some of those in our baskets everyday. Otherwise the basket fills with the endless supply of little rocks life throws our way, and that's all we experience. We move further and further from our center and life loses its meaning. But staying committed to our big rocks isn't easy.
After this conversation, I spent a few days trying to figure out what my "big rocks" were. Finally I came up with being creative, spending time in nature, practicing yoga, connecting with my kids, and making time with friends. I realized how often other things got in the way of these simple, essential pleasures, how often I let the pressure of the little rocks propel me through my days.
When I brought this up at dinner one night, everyone warmed to the idea and started talking about their big rocks. Aunt Mary said her big rocks were surfing, hanging out with the kids, being in nature, gardening and staying in touch with her family. Uncle Stuart said his big rocks were connecting with his partner and connecting deeply with himself through solitude, poetry and photography.
Daniel identified connecting with family, exercising, reading, and hanging out as his big rocks. Justin's were origami, building with Legos and Knex, listening to Harry Potter, folding geometric solids, spending time alone, and playing with his friend, Ian. Emily said hers were seeing mermaids and unicorns and fairies and the stars and the moon and roses, getting nur-nur (laying on my bare breast), pretending to be baby Malika, going swimming, and spending time alone.
Once the kids finished dinner and went off to play, our conversation grew more serious. We talked about what it meant for each of us when we didn't have our big rocks. Stuart said, "This culture speeds up our lives so it's hard to have time for our big rocks. I have voices that tell me I can't do any photography or poetry until I clean the house or fix the car. I try to ignore them, but those things do need to get done. When I don't get to my big rocks, I feel like I'm living in a rat race. I survive, but I'm not as deeply attuned as I want to be."
Joan nodded, "When I'm caught up in the little rocks, I turn into a machine. The only way I can keep from feeling the pain of that is to bury the fact that I don't have time for my big rocks. Sometimes I forget that I even have big rocks, but then when I remember them, it's extremely painful."
I observed that the kids never went for very long without their big rocks. When Emily didn't get her necessary snuggies or Justin didn't get enough time at home with his paper folding supplies, they fell apart, letting us know in a hurry that their big rocks weren't being tended to. "If only we could be so responsive to our own deeper needs," I noted wryly.
Joan said, "It's not easy to do that around little kids. In a family there are so many agendas. There are the kids' agendas, Vicki's agenda, there's work. I keep waiting for something to change so I can have time for my big rocks."
Daniel said, "I'm interested in lots of things, but when I try to take on too many of them, I end up with too many little rocks. We create a lot of stress in our lives by generating so many activities. I think the trick is to do less so you always have time for your big rocks."
Joan stared fondly at her oldest son. "I agree. I have lots of big rock interests: gardening, yoga, weaving, art. I have so many, I feel scattered. In my life, I have access to so many wonderful things, but I can't do them all with quality."
I nodded my head. "That's something I've learned from you," I said to Joan, "to leave space between things.
"Yeah," Joan said. "It's important for me to rest and relax and not feel like I always have to be doing something-even if it's one of my big rocks."
Mary chimed in. "My strategy is to not try to do it all. I take my lunch down to the beach and sit there for half an hour. Then I go back to work. Just that little bit of time out in nature restores me for the rest of the afternoon."
Stuart was nodding his head. "It's about putting the sacred back into everyday life. You just inject it where you can in little ways."
In a family, each of us has our big rocks. Finding out what they are, honoring them once we find them, and clearing the way so everyone can have consistent, reliable big rock time can go a long way toward restoring balance and harmony in our daily lives.
Laura Davis is a nationally syndicated columnist and the co-author, with Janis Keyser, of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years (Broadway Books, 1997). Laura and Janis are currently writing a book for the parents of elementary school children. Laura is the mother of seven-year-old Justin, four-year-old Emily and stepmom to twenty-two year-old Daniel. Out of respect for the privacy of her family members, they are being identified by pseudonyms in this story.