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.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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