from the world's big
Why being busy is a modern sickness
We have to practice doing nothing more often.
- Constantly being busy is neurologically taxing and emotionally draining.
- In his new book, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes that you're doing a disservice to others by always being busy.
- Busyness is often an excuse for the discomfort of being alone with your own thoughts.
Of all the books from last century we can turn back to for guidance, Alan Watts's The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety is particularly suited for this task. Published in 1951, Watts knew post-World War II America was ramping up at unsustainable social and technological speeds. More people were working more hours while offering more excuses as to why they were never really present—the word "more" being the constant catalyst of inattention and stress. He writes:
So many people of wealth understand much more about making and saving money than about using and enjoying it. They fail to live because they are always preparing to live. Instead of earning a living they are mostly earning an earning, and thus when the time comes to relax they are unable to do so.
How little has changed in 70 years.
Jon Kabat-Zinn has spent most of his career trying to halt the sickness of busyness. While a student at MIT in the sixties, he discovered meditation through the work of Philip Kapleau, who, like Watts, recognized the dangers of the increasing speed at which society was moving. By the late seventies, Kabat-Zinn launched an eight-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which became the basis of his career.
With over a half-century of meditation and mindfulness behind him, even Kabat-Zinn finds himself needing to get busy, as an excerpt from his latest book, The Healing Power of Mindfulness, displays:
I am not keeping myself busy. If anything, I am attempting to keep myself unbusy and finding that to be something of a full-time job.
That's the thing about mindfulness: it's always a practice. Though Watts could not have foreseen the attentional capacities of a nation destroyed by palm-sized computers we carry with us everywhere, he recognized the deleterious effects of industry. He wrote often about the Japanese tea ritual, which is a way of yoking the mind to the moment, of zeroing consciousness in on one object of fixation. Kabat-Zinn, having begun his training in Zen, would also have understood this throughout the rambunctious sixties.
And yet, here he is, 50 years on, recognizing that individual awareness is powerless against the unforgiving force of culture. He finds himself explaining his busyness to someone on the telephone, only after the fact realizing it was just a ruse, a means for justifying potential idleness—a curse in the ceaseless machinations of capitalism. In a moment of lucidity, however, Kabat-Zinn recognizes that every gain comes at a loss.
Saying yes to more things than we can actually manage to be present for with integrity and ease of being is, in effect, saying no to all those things and people and places we have already said yes to.
I'm writing this shortly after returning from the Sunday afternoon yoga class I teach at Equinox Marina del Rey. This week the sequence was "old school," to me, the way I began my training twenty years ago in New York City. Based on the Hatha-Vinyasa system, the style I studied was pulled from Asthanga Yoga, which was invented by Pattabhi Jois roughly a century ago to calm down the relentless churning of the minds of pre-teenage boys. It is a rigorous, physical practice that, ideally, sets you up to enter a state of deep reflection and meditation once you're physically exhausted.
After 40 minutes of continual flow, we went into a long hip-stretch sequence on the floor, each side lasting roughly ten minutes. Throughout I watched shoulders tense, fingertips tap, and eyes scan the room. Attention is never easily won, especially in the Age of Distraction. Yet not everyone: some found a peaceful respite from mind churning. After the practice, one woman who had never taken my class approached me to say that for the first time in weeks her mind slowed down and she felt at ease. The yoga worked.
There are a number of practices we can use to yoke our attention to consciousness—to stop being so busy all the damn time. This is not an exhaustive or even authoritative list. These are simply some of the ways I remind myself that not every moment needs to be filled with something to do. While yoga is my regular go-to there are plenty more.
- Read novels. There's no better antidote than literature. Good stories carry you to places unimagined. Currently that's Haruki Murakmi's Killing Commendatore.
- Float in a sensory deprivation chamber for 60-90 minutes.
- Lie on the ground listening to music after smoking marijuana. I recommend at least an hour. Marijuana is optional; music is not. Here's my current playlist.
- Walk around my Culver City neighborhood. Though Los Angeles is admittedly not a great walking city, there are plenty of crevices to discover. Sometimes that requires driving to a new neighborhood.
- Play with my cats. After ten hours on my computer I lose track of who I even am. Even though I live in a sizable apartment, our three cats spend their days sleeping at various angles on the futon behind me. They remind me that a lot can get done without much effort.
It should be noted that none of these activities involve a phone in hand, or anywhere in sight.
In the end, it's the relationship between our nervous system and the environment that matters most. There is much we cannot control, yet what we can is how we move through this world. Always being hurried, harried, distracted, anxious, not present—busyness is killing us. Like opioid abuse and texting and driving, it should be considered a public health crisis.
Boredom reframed can be liberating. You just have to slow down long enough to recognize that, and then, perhaps most importantly, practice doing nothing.
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>