Stop the Glorification of Busy

Nowadays – and especially this time of year – many people answer the question: “How are you?” with: “Oh, I am very busy.” As if being busy equals “I am well” or “I am not well”. However, being busy is not something we are, it is something we do. Actually, it is worse: it is something we do to ourselves and to others.

In our Western society we are so driven to be ‘productive’, we are so afraid to miss out (ever heard of the acronym fomo?), essentially terrified of being alone, that we seem to have forgotten what it is like to do nothing, to just be. To leave some space for the unknown. So we are busy being busy, and we don’t have time to call our friends and family, or even text them, stop to notice the trees or the sky, let alone to sit and meditate. “I am too busy to meditate”, I often hear. Yet the problem with being busy is that it is based on ignorance. We do not realize that by keeping our mind occupied constantly we are not giving ourselves a chance.

In the Tibetan tradition being busy is considered the most extreme form of laziness. When we are continuously busy, we can turn our mind off. Like a sleepwalker we just move from one thing to the next without being fully present. As Dr. Reggie Ray put it: “There is no more fundamental intelligence operating”. And then we wonder why we feel so estranged from ourselves, our families, and our friends – if we even notice that. If you won’t make time for yourself – just 10 or 15 minutes to be with yourself – everyone else in your life is going to suffer.

I know some people put meditation on their “to do list”. It’s hilarious when you think about it: making meditation another thing you need to do, whereas this is all about non-doing. Having said that, I know that if you don’t make space in your daily schedule to meditate it won’t happen. I also understand that at times life gets in the way and you won’t manage to practice. Of course, sometimes family or a job needs to take priority. But then let that be a conscious decision: “I am choosing to have breakfast with my kids right now”, rather than saying that you are too busy to sit with yourself.

I’ve heard this story about a woman who went on a meditation retreat. She was very anxious to leave her family at home, especially her two little daughters, and didn’t know if she would make it till the end of the retreat. She stayed, however, and couldn’t believe how rested and recharged she felt by the time the retreat ended. A year later she came for another retreat. When the teacher asked her what motivated her to come again, she replied: “The other day, my daughters said to me: ‘Mommy, you remember that place you went to last year? Maybe it’s time to go back.’”

Busy-ness is tricky. It does funny things to our minds. Recently I was a faculty assistant in a meditation teacher training and was able to join one of the meditation sessions. While I sat there with my eyes closed, doing my best to focus on my breath, my mind started to play tricks on me. It said: “Wow, it’s really too bad your schedule is so busy you won’t even have time to go on a silent meditation retreat within the next 6 months.” So then I started to worry about the fact I am so busy, while I was meditating! I did catch myself at some point, and could see the humor in this incongruity. But what if I hadn’t?

We need to make a fierce effort to carve out time to work on ourselves. Otherwise it is not going to happen. Before you know it you are at the end of your life and you wonder what you have been doing all this time you’ve been given on earth. “One of the things about being busy is that it is an un-examined behavior. It’s habitual.”[1]

Here are some questions you can ask yourself when something comes up and you think you need to do this:

  • Why do I need to do this? What is the benefit going to be? Does it have to be done now?

Often we don’t even think about why we are doing what we are doing, but the idea that we have to do it. (Possibly with the vague feeling that the world will come to an end if we don’t do it.) Also, most often we think our actions need to be immediate. Yet, in my experience most things can wait (if needed to be done at all).

  • How likely is it that I will get the desired outcome from this activity?

Is it possible that my action will have no effect at all? How sure am I that I will get what I desire? How important is this really, and to whom? Thinking that you will get satisfaction when you can cross another thing of your to-do-list, is hopeless. There are always more things on the list. And, ultimately, our satisfaction in life doesn’t come from doing things; it comes from being content in the moment without judgment.

  • Has this action unforeseen consequences?

You may think a certain phone call will take 5 minutes. But it turns out to be 45 minutes. The idea to go teach a workshop in Europe for a day sounds great, but then I forget I still need to get there on an overnight flight, will be jetlagged, and that the entire trip will take at least three days. Having dessert after a big meal may be very tempting, but you may end up feeling sick afterwards. We do this all the time. We jump on things without thinking it through, and then we wonder why we are so busy or feel miserable.

Letting go of this – glorified – state of being busy doesn’t mean we cannot be active or creative anymore. We simply need to give up the mentality that this ceaseless mental speed, that having nothing to do equals failing, is a good idea. The glorification of busy needs to be addressed if we want to be any good to anyone – including ourselves.

It takes practice to feel the beneficial effects of your practice. At first it may, indeed, feel like a waste of time. You are just sitting there, noticing the busy-ness in your mind and you wonder how this could ever be productive. Research, however, has shown over and over that meditation is simply the most effective thing we can do to train our mind. It is from the non-doing we can experience spaciousness; a sense of well-being and ease, that is unlike any other. Even when you don’t like your meditation practice (at first), or when you only take 5 minutes, it will still be effective. Start small. The Nike slogan has never been more appropriate: just do it.

Chögyam Trungpa teaches: “Learn how to make space into your work life.” I had wanted to write this blog for a long time, but I kept putting it off because I thought there were other things more important. This morning I meditated for 30 minutes before doing anything else. When I opened my eyes I felt a wave of inspiration, and sat down behind my computer. Words starting flowing, and this blog wrote itself effortlessly. It is in the spaciousness that we can get things done.


[1] Dr. Reggie Ray in his article Busy-ness is laziness, by which this blog was inspired.