It’s better to take your time and slow down than trade a good job well done for hasty speed or effectiveness. Here’s where Buddhism and busyness collide.
Busy can be good! “Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news!,” as Trungpa Rinpoche used to remind us (and our egos). But busy-ness…not so much–and our speediness and quest for efficiency doesn’t even produce results, often. Mindfulness anchored to busy? Hai!
Life emerges out of the silence of our inner being.
The life that we have in our mind, the life that is a reflection of our planning, the life that has been constructed out of bits and pieces in our environment—external conditioning, things we have observed in other people, things that influential people have told us—is actually not who we are.
That pre-planned life is rigid. It’s artificial. It’s unresponsive. It doesn’t reflect the life that we were born to live.
As a student of mine observed, obstacles—which are always with us—are not really obstacles when you work with them in the right way. And we have to work with them.
Many, many people tell me “I’m having a lot of problems doing this [meditation] practice because I am so busy. I’m really busy. I have a full life. It’s busy and I run from morning ‘til night.” People actually say that.
Now think about that for a minute. What kind of life is that? Is that a life worth living? Some people feel it is.
America is probably the most extreme example of a speed-driven culture—and this is not my particular personal discovery, but something that has been said to me by many people from other traditional cultures. The first time this was said to me was when I was 19 and I went to Japan. Western people are running from themselves and they use the busy-ness of their lives as an excuse to avoid having to actually live their own life. We are terrified of who we actually are, terrified of the inner space that is the basis of the human experience.
We are actually incapable of being alone—of any work that requires genuine solitude, without entertainment, that requires making a connection with the silence of the inner being. The American family engineers a life in which there is never any time alone, where we never have to actually talk to each other. Even dinnertime is around the TV, at best—or we’re just grabbing something at McDonald’s.
But it’s not the larger culture. It’s actually us. It’s me and it’s you. We load our life up to the point where it’s about to snap. And when you ask someone to sit down and be with themselves they go, “I can’t. I don’t have time for that.” Now you and I may realize that there actually is a problem. Most people don’t think there is a problem.
We run our kids in the same way—and it’s destroying them. The soccer practice and the music lesson and three hours of TV and homework—it goes on from the minute they get up until they go to sleep. They never have an opportunity to experience silence. Psychological development requires periods of solitude. Anthropological psychology—studying other cultures, as well as our own—shows that when children do not have completely unstructured time, when there are no parental expectations looming over them, they actually can’t develop normally.
We see this at higher levels of education, too. Even the unusual and gifted students at Naropa [University]. These people are disabled, in many cases, because they have lived a busy life, fulfilling all expectations that middle and upper-middle class parents lay on their children because of their fear. The underlying thing is fear of space.
We all have it. I have it in a major way. I am busy. I have all these things that I like to do. When one thing ends, the next thing starts. It’s all important and I have to do it and I don’t sleep enough. So we all have to take another look.
The problem with being busy is that it is based on ignorance—not realizing that by keeping your mind occupied constantly you are actually not giving yourself a chance. We even put an activity in our life, called meditation, where you practice not being busy. Think about it. It’s actually genius. You have added another thing on top of everything else you do, but you are pulling the plug for a period of time every day—so it actually has a reverse effect of opening up and creating space. So you are just going to be more busy now! But this is good, especially in Western culture. People put meditation on their To Do lists. This is something I tell my students: “If you don’t put meditation on the top of your To Do list, it will be at the bottom, and it won’t happen.” I find that if meditation is not the first priority of my day it won’t happen. You know if I am foolish enough to say, “Well, I have to make this phone call, check my email…,” then it’s over. Finished. “I’ll do it later.” It never happens. Look at your life and ask, “Am I being honest with myself? Is it really true that I don’t have time?”
When I was in graduate school I worked with a Jungian analyst, June Singer. She used to say, “Work expands to fill all of the available space.” The problem is not the amount of things you have in your life, it’s the attitude. It’s your fear of space. Busy-ness in the Tibetan tradition is considered the most extreme form of laziness. Because when you are busy you can turn your brain off. You’re on the treadmill. The only intelligence comes in the morning when you make your To Do list and you get rid of all the possible space that could happen in your day. There is intelligence in that: I fill up all the space so I don’t have to actually relate to myself!
Once you have made that list, it’s over. There is no more fundamental intelligence operating. So the basic ignorance is not realizing what we are doing by being busy. What we are doing to ourselves, what we are doing to our families, what we are doing to our friends.
When my daughter Catherine, who is now 24, was a newborn baby my wife Lee and I went home to my mother’s house. My father had already died. I grew up in Darien, Connecticut—the ultimate suburbia. Everyone works in New York and they are all busy. My best friend from high school came over with his wife, who was also a close friend of mine, and my godfather came over. This succession of people all came in…and Lee picked up on it right away, because she is from Alberta and out there, there is a lot of space!
These people…we loved each other. We were so close. But it was always the same: after 10 minutes they said, “Well, we got to run!” Every single one did the same thing. And Lee said to me, “What are they so afraid of?” Not one of them was actually present. It made me realize why I left the East Coast and went to India. “How far away can I get?” But these patterns are deeply ingrained in us, and running away is not going to solve the problem. It’s in us.
People on campus always say to me, “Gee, you must be really busy.” I could be standing there looking at an autumn tree. I say “No, I’m not busy, I have all the time in the world.” Now, I may not really feel that way—but somehow we have to stop this mentality. It’s sick. Literally. So I never say to my wife, “I’m busy.” Ever. I used to do it, but it didn’t evoke a good reaction. [Laughter]
“I’m too busy.” I am sorry. I don’t buy it. It’s self-deception: “I am too busy to relate to myself.” I don’t care if you have four children and three jobs—we have one human life. And if you can’t make the time, 15 minutes to relate to yourself, everyone else in your life is going to suffer. You have to realize that you are harming other people by making up excuses and not working on yourself. This is serious.
I do understand that things happen in life, and in the course of a week there are going to be times when you can’t practice if you have a job, a family. But to say that over a period of three months I can’t practice because I am too busy? That is the very problem that you came here to solve. I implore you.
My wife has developed some techniques to help with this problem. I am going to give them to you, and then I’ll ask her permission when I go home for lunch. [Laughter]
Being busy is tricky. We set up our life so we are busy. I do this to myself; this is one of my biggest obstacles. I get excited about things and agree to do things three months from now. But when the time comes I realize it is not a good idea because I can’t do it properly, because I have so much else going on. But I have no choice. I have to go through with it. “God, you idiot, how could you do that!” But getting angry doesn’t help, because there I am and I’ve got a 16-hour day I have to get through.
Unless you viciously carve out time to work on yourself it’s not going to happen. You have to be brutal about it, actually. If your mind is always busy then you have no sense of the world you live in. Because there is no communication, there is no space within which to see what we are doing. We will end up destroying our lives, and you may not realize what you have given up until you are on your deathbed. By being busy you are basically giving away your human existence.
One of the things about being busy is that it is a un-examined behavior. It’s habitual.
3 Thinks to Ask Yourself to Evaluate if You’re too Busy
What’s the Point?
So when something comes up and you think “I need to do this,” the first question to ask is, “Why do I need to do this? What am I expecting to get out of this particular activity? What is the benefit going to be?”
A lot of times we actually don’t even think what we are going to get out of it, or what it’s going to accomplish. Amazing. Say I need to call so-and-so right away. Okay: “Why?” You’d be surprised. You think “Well, it’s obvious.”
It isn’t. We have not thought through most of the things that we do at all. We haven’t looked at what the desired consequence is.
What are the Odds?
I may think I am likely to get something, and sometimes I do. But what is the likelihood that something is not going to happen? How sure am I that what I think I am going to get, will happen? What is the percentage of possibility?
Is Other Stuff Likely to Come Up?
This is the big one for me. Does this action have unforeseen karmic consequences? For example: I want to call up somebody and check on something. A lot of times they start telling me some terrible thing that has just happened. I’d allowed five minutes for this conversation, and 45 minutes later I am still on the phone. We do this all the time. We don’t look at the consequences of a particular action.
It’s like somebody who goes into a café, and there is this huge cheesecake right there. You could buy a slice, but you get a cappuccino and sit down with the entire cheesecake and start eating. Now, from a certain point of view this sounds like bliss. And maybe for a short period of time you are going to forget all the pain of the human condition. I mean, that is the great thing about cheesecake. [Laughter] It boosts your endorphins for 5 or 10 minutes. You feel great! But then, having eaten the entire cheesecake, you feel sick for the next three days.
Strangely enough, this is how we live our lives. We jump on things. Someone asks me, “Why don’t you come to Switzerland, teach for a few days and then hang out in the wonderful Alps?” By the time I get off the phone I am ready to pack. Then I talk to my wife. [Laughter] And she asks me, “Have you considered what a 17-hour trip is going to do to your bad back? Have you thought about that?” And then I get back on the phone. [Laughter]
But, because of our ambitions of all kinds, we are ready to fill our life up to the point where, even if I’m in Switzerland, nothing is different. This is one of the great discoveries: wherever I go it’s still lousy. [Laughter] It’s just me and my mind and I don’t feel good and I have got this work to do and I don’t have the energy. It’s the same story, no matter where I go or what I’m doing.
Except when I sit down and meditate. Then, I feel like I am creating an inner space so I can actually relate to the fact of what my life is, rather than just being in an out-of-control mode. So sit down and ask yourself, “What is important in my life, and what’s less important?” Almost on a daily basis, we have to look closely at the things that remain on our To Do list to see whether they are actually realistic.
Ten years ago, after I’d taught a Dathün—a month long meditation—some of the students said to me, “We feel bonded to each other and to you. We’d really like to keep going” And I said, “Well, we could start a meditation group.” And 10 years later I am trapped with a community of 200 people, called Dhyana Sangha. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful. But I got into it in a blind way. And there are many other things that I do not love in the same way that I get into blindly. We all do that all the time—and we wind up with a life that doesn’t work and isn’t helpful to others.
My ambition to accomplish things is going to be one of the last things to go. I can’t help it; it’s just the way that I am. I see a pile of leaves that need to be raked up and I start salivating. I love to do things. I love to be active. And you can say, “Well, that’s great.” But there’s neurosis in that. It’s a way of shutting out space. This is another thing my wife has taught me: when there’s no space nothing really happens.
I had a wonderful quotation by Chögyam Trungpa up on my wall during my [meditation] retreat. It goes something like, “If there isn’t a complete sense of openness and space, then communication between two people can not happen. Period. It’s that simple.” The communication we have with each other is often based on agendas: negotiating with other people to get what we want. That’s not communication.
My wife taught me that. Insistently. It’s to the point where that busy mind is just not acceptable in our house anymore. It doesn’t matter what’s going on my life. If she comes into my study, I have to be completely there. And that’s fabulous, because I’m never able to get invested in that neurosis. If I do, she’ll let me have it.
Giving up this state of busy-ness doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to be active, creative people. We’re giving up the mentality where you can’t actually relate to what’s in front of you because you have this mental speed going on. Let it go. I’m saying it to you. This is an issue that we are going to have to address if we want to be any good to anyone.
You’ll notice when you work in this way over a period of years—and this is something that I have discovered accidentally—the more you practice, the more you get done. If you sit for 2 hours in the morning, which is a lot for people, you will find that your day is 30 hours long. When you establish sitting, somehow, in your life—when you sit in the morning—your day takes care of itself. Things happen as they need to. There is a sense of auspicious coincidence throughout the day.
And when you don’t sit, things go to hell. [Laughter] Everything runs into everything. You say, “I don’t have time to sit ‘cause I have to do this email.” You run to your computer, turn it on and spend the next 4 hours trying to get your computer to work. This is just how things work.
Magic is actually very down to earth. It’s a part of our lives. It’s going on all the time, we just don’t see it. But when you actually take care of yourself, work with yourself and create openness in your life, life will respond by cooperating. And when you are unwilling to relate with yourself at the beginning of your day, your life is going to give you a hard time.
I got stuck on my first book, Buddhist Saints In India. If I wrote another book like that it would kill me. It was an unbelievable labor. I got stuck in the middle. So I started practicing more, I started doing long retreats. And the book started flowing. The more I practiced, the more the book happened. In a sense, when I meditated I was getting something good done.
I realized that the way you accomplish things in life—whether with family or going to work—is through practice. One hour of work with the practice behind you is worth two days when the practice isn’t there. Things just don’t work well—there’s too much neurosis in it. When I don’t feel busy, things I have to do fall into place. Going through my day with a sense of relaxation, I connect with people. I appreciate the outdoors when I walk to my car. I see the sky.
I encourage you to take a chance: put practice at the top of the list. Don’t make that call if it isn’t something that actually needs to happen—so many of the things we do is to make people like us. “I have to make this call or so-and-so is going to be upset.” I have a pretty good idea that if you do that you will find that there is plenty of time to practice, no matter how busy you are. Busy people will look at your life and go, “I don’t see how you can do it!”
Here’s a teaching that Chögyam Trungpa gave that has changed the way a lot of people look at their work lives: learn how to invite space into your worklife. The space itself will actually accomplish most of what you need to do. In the form of helpful people turning up, auspicious coincidences… And in so doing, you are not only opening up your self, you are opening up the world. It becomes a dance. It’s no longer your job to sit there for 10 hours doing your thing, it’s to respond to the way the world wants things to happen. It’s de-centralized.
In Buddhism, this is one of the paramitas: exertion. Exertion is tuning into the natural energy of the world. And when you tune in, you don’t get tired. You become joyful. That you are part of a huge cosmic dance that is unfolding, moment by moment. And you have to change your ideas of what you thought should happen. It requires flexibility on our part!
Busy-ness. It’s the most commonly mentioned obstacle that everyone faces, and I know for me it’s #1. So I thought it would be worthwhile spending a little time with it. I invite you to take a fresh look at your life. Relate to the fear that comes up when we are not busy. Am I still worthy? It’s that Calvinist thing, underlying our culture. But try letting go and lo and behold it’s a better human life, and much more beneficial for other people.
I hope I didn’t upset anybody by saying these things, but I can’t beat around the bush with you. I need to just lay things out as they come up.
The above is adapted from a talk Dr. Reggie Ray gave as part of his Meditating with the Body retreat.