Stop Being Busy

You know the story. You see a friend. It’s been awhile. You shake hands. You give a hug. As you sit down for coffee to talk, your friend naturally asks, “How are you? How have you been?” There’s lots you could share, right? All the things you haven’t shared with your friend – the updates, the changes in your life, the challenges you’ve been dealing with, new discoveries you’ve made that you’d like to share.

But instead, you answer, “Busy. I’ve been busy.” Even as your lips purse to form the burst of the “B,” you regret it. But it’s out there. The most boring answer to your friend’s question that you could give. Worse yet, your friend doubles down. “Oh yeah, me too. SOOOO busy.”

How often have you had this conversation? I know I’ve had it more times than I could count, and many more times than I care to admit. What’s behind this answer? Are we really that busy? Our feeling of how busy we are has increased over time. Take a look at Google’s graph of this use of the word “busy” between 1800 and 2010:


From this timeline, we used the word “busy” at an increasing rate until the mid-1940s. That makes some sense – the world at large did have an awful lot to deal with in 1944. And it appears that people were in the mood for a well-deserved 25 year vacation after the war. But around 1975 (notably, the time that most of my generation were appearing on the Earth), we started another climb towards increasing business.

Are we really that busy? There are differences between being busy, believing that you are busy, and wanting others to believe you are busy. It seems to me that people generally fall within a three categories. Some people really are unbelievably busy, filling their lives with professional and personal obligations from sunup to well past sundown. There are people who are not busy at all, although people don’t often admit it. Last there is what I suspect is the largest group of all – people who say and believe that they are busy, but actually are not really getting much done at all. Do we need to be busy? Is there a better way to be? And if we are busy, what should we be busy doing?

There are two places in our thought process where we often get confused. The first is in dealing with the pressure the modern world places on us to be in perpetual motion. The second is making good choices about how to spend our time.

Turning Off Your Monkey Mind

Work, side projects, family, spouse, kids, friends, and community all demand attention from us in amounts greater than we can meet. We careen through life with a thousand different to-do lists and scheduling conflicts dancing in our head. It’s easy to live life almost entirely in your head, bouncing between thinking over and “re-doing” past events and worrying about future ones. Past-future-past-future-yesterday-tomorrow-where are my car keys?

Left uncontrolled, our thoughts can take over and make a ping-pong ball out of our psyches. Buddhists refer to this phenomenon as “Monkey Mind.” When Monkey Mind takes over, you are unsettled, restless, lost in daydream or worry, inattentive, confused, and indecisive. It’s what makes you feel busy and overwhelmed. You don’t want to encourage Monkey Mind.  You want to turn it off.

How? If you want to avoid being lost in these thought loops, you first need to become aware of those thoughts and how they arise. Take a quiet moment and sit comfortably. What does your body feel like in the chair? Is it heavy or light, calm or restless? Do you feel pain or tight muscles? Don’t judge or worry, just notice it. Breathe normally and notice your breath. How does it feel in your body? Where do you feel your breath? Does each breath feel different? Don’t judge or worry, just notice it. Chances are, the first time you try this, you will find yourself thinking about your afternoon appointment calendar or weekend plans or work stress without any desire to do so. You might not be able to focus on even one or two entire breaths before new thoughts pop up in your head. This is OK and normal. It’s actually the point of the exercise. You might have believed all along that you spend time thinking thoughts because you choose to. That’s not the case. It’s your uncontrolled Monkey Mind filling your peaceful mental stillness with worry, planning, and regret.

After you understand how thoughts arise in your mind, you can practice letting them pass by while observing them calmly, instead of being whisked away. This is simple, but not easy. It involves nothing more than noticing thoughts when they arise, and over time, improving your ability to do that so that you can avoid being swept away and lost in thought. You can call it meditation, or mindfulness, or being present, or anything else that works for you. You don’t need to adopt any religion or new philosophy or recite mantras. You just need to pay attention to how your mind works. There’s no better way to do that than to sit down and watch it.

Should I Do This?

The second reason we feel too busy is that we do things that we don’t want to do. I’m not talking about taking out the trash or cleaning out the gutters. I’m talking about big projects or time commitments that require a lot of us, but that don’t help us accomplish any of the goals in our lives. We take too much on. We don’t say no. We get caught up in societal pressures to have more, do more, be more, win more. If a friend calls you at 2PM on a Wednesday on the first warm day of spring and asks you to go play 9 holes of golf, what would you do? If your spouse calls you at the office and invites you to lunch and a long walk, would you go? If you have a choice between attending the third networking lunch of the week or having a quiet lunch to read and think about a problem at work, what’s the better choice?

Why are we making ourselves busy with things that make us miserable? I am not advocating sloth. I do believe, however, that as a society we are absolutely confused about how to spend time to do our best thinking, produce our best work, and live our best life.  Derek Sivers has a wonderful take on this in his short post, “Hell Yeah.” When presented with an opportunity, only commit if your reaction is “Hell, yeah!” Otherwise, say no. Don’t follow lukewarm feelings.

The interesting thing is that, the more you tame your Monkey Mind, you’ll desire less. You’ll worry less about the future and regret the past less. You won’t spin your wheels trying to address phantom concerns. You’ll dump the unnecessary tasks. You’ll feel more present and energized by your work and pursuits. You’ll spend less time doing things you don’t want to do. You’ll get more done in less time. You’ll be less busy, and you’ll be more interesting at the coffee shop.

A Zen Buddhist Teacher Explains Death to a Child and Explains That Names Are Not the Same as Things

I am currently working my way through Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn, ed. Stephen Mitchell.  Originally published in 1976, the book is a collection of correspondence, lectures, Zen interviews, between the Zen Master and his students in the West.  I do not recommend it as an introductory book on Zen Buddhism (look to Alan Watts for survey materials written for Western audiences for that), but for those with even a small bit of background understanding of Buddhism and the quirky nature of Zen teachings, Dropping Ashes is a treasure of insight and perspective, drawn from the Soen-Sa’s direct words, often hilariously shared.

Reading today, one particular anecdote caught my attention, both for its sweetness and for the broader lesson it contains.  Zen teaching often demonstrates an ability to reduce questions of overwhelming complexity to simple language and demonstrations.  Soen-sa gives an example of that propensity in recounting his talk with a seven-year old girl named Gita at the Cambridge Zen Center after the Center’s resident cat died after a long illness.  The girl was troubled by the cat’s death, even after watching the cat’s traditional Buddhist burial rituals.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any questions?”

Gita said, “Yes.  What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”

Soen-Sa said, “Where do you come from?”

“From my mother’s belly.”

“Where does your mother come from?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa then explains, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing.”  He draws an analogy for Gita between a cookie factory and the universal nature of life force, explaining that all of the different cookies “have different shapes and different names, but they are all made form the same dough and they all taste the same. ”

“So all the different things that you see – a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor – all these things are really the same.”

“What are they?”

“People give them many different names.  But in themselves, they have no names.  When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes.  But when you are not thinking, all things are the same.  There are no words for them.  People make the words.  A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’  People say, ‘This is a cat.’  The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’  People say, ‘This is the sun.’

We often have a tendency to confuse our names and labels for the things we encounter with the nature of the observed object itself.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” as we’ve all been taught.  Soen-sa applies this insight to show the little girl the difference between the way we label the world and the world’s true nature:

“So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’ how should you answer?”

“I shouldn’t use words.”

Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words.  So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’ what would be a good answer?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me.

“What is Buddha?”

Soen-Sa hit the floor.

Gita laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is God.”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is your mother?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What are you?”

Gita hit the floor.

“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of.  You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”

Gita smiled.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”

“You still haven’t told me where Katz went.”

Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”

Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard.  Then she laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Very very good! That is how you should answer any question.  That is the truth.”

Soen-sa ends the episode with a humorous observation by Gita that the wonderful Maria Popova described as “a tragic testament to contemporary Western education being a force of industrialized specialization, deliberately fragmenting the unity of all things and deconditioning our inner wholeness:”

“Gita bowed and left.  As she was opening the door, she turned to Soen-sa and said, “But I’m not going to answer that way when I’m in school.  I’m going to give regular answers!”

Soen-sa laughed.

Couple this with “A Child’s Advice on Life and Fear.

Changing Perspective – Books Worth Reading

Between preparatory school, college, and post-graduate schooling, I have experienced a lot of classes and lectures.  There are two that were superlative.  (I recognize the contradiction in terms, but I consider them to both be superlative).

The first was my prep school American History class, which our teacher, Doc Thomas, used no textbook, and taught American History simply with primary sources.  Some of these were written, like John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech, and the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and Kerouac.  Others were visual, such as the paintings of Thomas Church and his colleagues of the Hudson River School, and even the film Rebel Without a Cause.  The immediacy of experience, without the intervention of a textbook as moderator, was learning in a new way for me, and I never forgot  the lessons learned.

The second was Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University, the so-called “Great Books” class that ran us through the canon of Western Civilization at two books per week for the full year.  The material was the expected material and not the reason for my feelings on the class.  The blessing of the class was Scott Sandage, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who was at Columbia on a fellowship for the year, and gave insight into reading, world view, and life perspective that I had never considered.  I could write at length about the lessons of that class, but most meaningful was Professor Sandage’s point that through every moment of education – be it a book, a lecture, pursuit of a degree – we implicitly are looking to change ourselves.  We go to school and ask the school to change us.  We read the book and hope that the book will change us.  We view the painting believing that it will open some new insight or thought in us that we had not before seen or experienced.

I have been ruminating on this recently, particularly after reading a number of “Favorite Books” posts on other sites I enjoy (Farnam Street’s and Ryan Holiday’s lists are examples).  I like collecting lists of books, or records, or other experiences that I’ve had that I believe others will enjoy.  I do not claim that these are the “best” books, but merely that each impacted me in a memorable and positive way.  I hope that you find a new perspective in these.

Desolation Angels – Jack Kerouac

Desolation Angels is Kerouac at his best, full of rhythmically exciting prose and a conflicted vision of America.  The work actually contains two books – the first, Desolation Angels, chronicles Kerouac’s solitary  summer stint as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the the Cascade Mountain range.  Purportedly drawn up from his journals, the book reveals Kerouac’s alternating ecstasy and sorrow during his period of solitude.  Book II is titled Passing Through, and contains reflections of Kerouac’s travels through America, Mexico, Tangiers, France, and England. It is difficult to reduce any Kerouac to analytical review, but the book is important to me for a few key reasons.

First, the prose itself is rhythmically exciting, nearly poetic, in Kerouac’s grand vision of the “poetry of pure prose.”  It is a beautiful celebration of life’s highs and lows, its enthusiasms and sorrows.  Second, it contains the exuberance of On the Road, but stands from a place of introspection and greater perspective than the more well-known, but momentary and rapid-fire work.  As a result, the book provides wonderful insight into a mind overwhelmed with the beauty and immediacy of life, while simultaneously struggling with the pains of loneliness, attachment, and suffering that come along with those things.  The quality of Kerouac’s philosophical, psychological, and symbolic insights in the book is unparalleled elsewhere in his canon.

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

After reading No Country for Old Men about five or six years ago, I did something I have done with no other writer.  I read nothing but Cormac McCarthy until I had finished his catalogue.  Blood Meridian is his finest work, on par with the finest moments of William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe.  I believe it is the finest piece of American contemporary literature that I have read. The novel is the story of a band of depraved and violent scalp-hunters on the Texas-Mexico borderlands in the 1850s.  McCarthy paints a world of immense space, stoic beauty, and ever-present dread.  McCarthy fills this world with characters capable of unspeakable evil and cruelty.  This is an unusual perspective on our American West, with no heroes, no salvation, only relentless violence and vengeance.  It is a mythic book, recreating Biblical stories in inverse ways.  At the end, you may have trouble beginning another novel, because the poetry of McCarthy’s exquisitely crafted language is just too perfect to leave behind.  This is truly an unforgettable work.

A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn (1922-2010), was a historian, playwright, social activist, and professor at Brown University).  This book is his master work.  People’s History attempts to tell a different story of American History, told from the perspective of the victims, the oppressed, the forgotten.  A controversial book, it is often adored and reviled by Americans depending on their particular view of the world, or perhaps, the view of the world that they want others to uphold.

The book has suffered some criticism of myopia or lack of citation in sections.  This is beside the point.  American history of too often taught from a sterile, reverent, and unchallenging perspective, focusing only on presidents and industrial heroes.  This book raises important questions about the collective assumptions and shared predispositions America holds with respect to its history, and challenges readers to evaluate otherwise familiar events in ways that they otherwise might never do. One should always be in the practice and habit of checking assumptions, and looking for alternative perspectives.  You may find new material or information that matures your own perspective, or you may find that the alternative is unconvincing and hold tight to your original views.  Either way, the exercise and practice of checking assumptions is invaluable, and Zinn provides a healthy dose of that.

Blue Highways/River Horse – William Least Heat-Moon

William Least Heat-Moon left Missouri in his van with no specific plan other than to drive the backroads of America, and discover the people and stories of the small towns of this country.  This trip led to Blue Highways, a remarkable and deeply human account of Americans, their hopes, dreams, and struggles.  Heat-Moon reveals a kaleidoscopic America in many ways, which increases in complexity and diversity with each new town into which he rolls.  At the same time, he finds common threads in American life, and an almost universal friendliness that propels him across the country as he tries to deal with the struggles he faces back home.

Years later, Heat-Moon and a friend make a second journey across America, this time by boat.  Starting in the Hudson River, they travel through the Great Lakes, across Lake Chautauqua, into the Allegheny River and down into the Mississippi River.  From there, it is upstream across the Missouri, and eventually across the Rockies before arriving in the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific Ocean.  Reminiscent of Blue Highways, River Horse adds a focus on the geology and geography of the country not present in the first book.  It is filled with the same cast of unforgettable Americans, whom Heat-Moon portrays honestly and kindly. Put together, these two books provide a wonderful “ground level” view of America.  Any of us who are too stuck in our local or regional worlds would do well to remind ourselves of the intricacies of life in all the far flung corners of our country.

A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway makes his account in this book of his post-WWI life in Paris, and his interactions with other American ex-patriates such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The narrative is quaint, if not a bit bland.  The value of this book lies in its direct and clear expression of Hemingway’s writing process.  Thousands of books with millions of pages are now circulating Amazon and bookstores, all wishing to provide direction on the creative process.  Start with Hemingway.

The Way of Zen – Alan Watts

My true feelings of this book are too complicated and immense to describe in this post, and I anticipate writing a longer post on the book.  That said, I have studied Eastern Philosophy for 15 years now, and practiced Zen Buddhism for five.  The original source material is often difficult and impenetrable.  Interpretative texts are often misinformed and squishy books designed to sell at new-age stores, and miss the deep and challenging questions presented by Zen philosophy.  I have found no better voice on Zen, or Buddhism in general, than Watts, who was both surgically precise with his explanations, and demonstrably able to assist Westerners with comprehension through his anticipation of typical stumbling blocks.