Yeah, but I’m already “fully engaged,” and it’s totally stressing me out! I’ve got a million things to do—so many responsibilities! I’m just so busy!
Nowadays most of us do indeed often feel the tension that accompanies having a lot to do. We have homework to complete, exams to pass, diplomas to acquire, and paying jobs to land. There are tasks at the office to accomplish, business problems to solve, and professional promotions to earn. The bills must be paid, forms must be filled out, and taxes must be filed.
The housework needs attention, the kids have to be driven to their soccer game, and there are birthday parties to be organized. There are home repairs that await us, meals to be prepared, and dishes, clothes, cars, and bodies to be washed. And there are, for some of us, book manuscripts to complete in order to meet the publisher’s deadline.
Our social lives can also sometimes seem a bit overwhelming, what with all the appointments, meetings, engagements, rendezvous, dinner parties, and lunch dates there are to juggle. We even fill our leisure time with plans, projects, schedules, and itineraries so as to not run the risk of—gasp!—boredom, the characteristically modern abhorrence of not having enough things to do.
And the younger you are, the more likely that you’re freaking out about all of this. A survey done on behalf of the American Psychological Association found that half of all “millennials” say their angst keeps them awake at night, and 39 percent of them said that their stress levels had increased in the past year.
We’ve done a good job of passing on this kind of anxiousness about life’s tasks to our kids. When I was a teenager, I looked forward to sleeping in on Saturday morning (and we all know the amazing talent most teenagers have for sleeping in—especially, I guess, if they’ve been kept awake the night before by stress!). But invariably my dreams were literally shattered as my father woke me at some ungodly hour (like maybe around 10:00 am) with the “to do list”— the chores I was expected to get through that day.
Idleness, I was told, was the devil’s playground, and there would be no such demonic tomfoolery in this house! Let’s get to work, son!
And so most of us have internalized the idea that our self-worth consists at least in part in how busy we keep ourselves, with all the pressures and strains that come from such an attitude. Now more than ever before, we feel it’s crucial to keep ourselves constantly occupied—or at least thinking about all the things we have to do—in order to be a real somebody.
Even though such perpetual worry and frenetic activity is wearing us out and down, we nevertheless revel in what has become a cult of busyness.
Our communications these days are often just to let each other know how much we’ve all got going on. Have you ever phoned up a friend and asked them how they’re doing, only to sit there on the other end of the line, listening to them talk for fifteen minutes about how busy they are? Maybe you’ve found yourself doing the same when someone else asks after you. Our catch-up conversations turn into contests to see who’s busier.
And what’s the unspoken message behind such tedious sharing and cataloging of our many activities?
I’m really, really busy—so see how important and valuable my life is?
In an article published in the New Statesman, Ed Smith writes that busy people “are not rushing to arrive somewhere, still less to achieve anything. They are rushing because rushing is how they display how hard they work.” The cult of busyness has become “a cultural malaise.” We’re all trying to convince ourselves and others that our lives are significant because we are so busy working:
In every area of public life, we demand not only that people work harder, but, crucially, that they be seen to work ever harder. This is the age of professional martyrdom.
One of my spiritual teachers once pointed out that super-busy people are actually the very ones—talented, energetic, and intelligent people—who, if they paused their nonstop spinning long enough, would realize how relatively insignificant much of what they’re busy doing actually is.
Busyness for its own sake can keep us unaware of and unfocused on the more consequential things we have to do in life. And the busyness stresses us out, which often enough triggers major mentalaffliction attacks. Anxiety about how many things there are to do does not help us do them better or more efficiently, let alone more wisely and calmly.
Instead of putting us in the flow, busyness just sweeps us away in the current. Instead of the mindful unselfconsciousness that characterizes being in the zone, the cult of busyness instills a self-conscious mindlessness that keeps us stewing about how much we have to do instead of concentrating on what we are actually doing.
Staying busy for the sake of busyness is not a spiritual technique for self-transcendence, happiness, or contentment. It is, rather, a recipe for agitation and turmoil, in addition to often being just another ploy to accentuate one’s self-importance.
The spiritual methods for self-forgetfulness in action are quite different than this kind of hectic, chicken-with-its-head-cut-off urge to just keep busy all the time. And it’s not mere inactivity that serves as the real antidote. Another cause of stress derives from worrying about all the things we should be doing that for one reason or another we are unable or unwilling to do.
The opposite of busyness is not paralysis. It’s remaining active and engaged in life, but in a calm and relaxed manner. We must do what there is to do, but most of us need to get way more unbusy as we’re doing it.
Getting unbusy can mean cutting back on nonessential or meaningless activity in order to create a more uncluttered schedule. Reprioritizing what is really important puts what is not so essential in its proper place.
It can also mean taking more time off or simply enjoying the free time we already have without diluting it with obsessive worry, nonstop checking of email and text messages, and treating our days off and holidays as if they were just another opportunity to stay busy. We don’t need to bring our work into our leisure time, and we don’t need to turn our leisure time into work.
Getting unbusy can also include introducing a relaxation or meditation practice into the daily schedule—a time where you just sit and do nothing (except grabbing some peace of mind!), which is perhaps one reason why so many of us resist it. To the busyness fanatic, meditating seems so . . . unproductive.
But the main thing about getting unbusy is a change in one’s attitude. Our duties in life, no matter how many or even how onerous, will not seem so overwhelming if we are not overwhelmed.
We are all desperately trying to be somebody, to be “special”. We collect “friends” and “followers” online as symbols of our worth. We hunt fame and visibility. But maybe we’ve got it all wrong.
With his edgy tone and radical perspective, Lama Marut follows up A Spiritual Renegade’s Guide to the Good Life by calling for the biggest revolution of all: the overthrow of our obsessive quest to be somebody. He shows readers that living an ethical life—a life of selflessness rather than unbridled egoism—is the key to true happiness and the foundation for creating a better world.
Without the need to seclude oneself in a monastery or retire to a cave in the Himalayas, Marut gives readers action steps and simple meditations to find true fulfillment.
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