These days we are all so busy that we often don’t take time to consider how constant doing affects our minds. And we might be surprised to know that in the Buddhist tradition, busyness represents a type of spiritual laziness. How can that be? If we’re doing all the time, how can we be lazy?
Three Types of Laziness
Buddhist texts describe three types of laziness that affect our ability to practice and meditate. All of these can prevent us from making progress on the Buddhist path.
- Sloth or inactivity.
- Self-discouragement or feelings of inadequacy or self-defeatism.
- Busyness with non-wholesome or mundane activities.
Sloth is easy to recognize–we feel tired and lethargic and simply don’t want to do anything virtuous. We can’t seem to shake the dullness and sluggishness and we just can’t be bothered to engage in practice. Often this manifests as procrastination–we tell ourselves that we do want to practice–just not right now, or not today–but in the future. The obvious problem comes as we repeat this pattern over and over, and tomorrow’s practice never comes.
Self discouragement or self-defeatism plagues many of us from time to time. We want to practice, but we lack self-confidence so we begin to tell ourselves that we can’t do the practice. Often we make excuses that we don’t know every detail perfectly and we don’t want to make a mistake–so we delay our practice. Or we may have been doing okay with our practice and then develop a deep fear that we can’t hold on to our cozy habits and our attachments. This type of self-doubt and procrastination can become a big obstacle to progress. As Phakchok Rinpoche often reminds us, the important thing to do is “just practice!”
Busy Laziness Has Many Forms
Busyness can be more sneaky and more difficult to acknowledge. If we find ourselves constantly engaging in clearly unwholesome activities we should be able to recognize that. And if we take a few moments each morning for self-reflection and intention setting, we can remind ourselves that we want to change our habits that cause suffering. Throughout our day, we can take a few mindful breaths at trigger times (before we have a meeting, or when we need to have a difficult conversation) and simply remind ourselves to approach our situation with kindness, compassion, and a realization that no situation is permanent.
But we may also fool ourselves by repeatedly engaging in neutral or even virtuous activities and then neglect our meditation practice. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche referred to this type of laziness as degraded laziness or the “laziness of being preoccupied.” We may tell ourselves that we are working hard for the benefit of others or that we aren’t doing anything harmful, but then we have no time to work with our own minds. Then we exert ourselves strenuously in undertaking mundane tasks and we lose our mindfulness and carefulness.
And in the worst cases, we completely forget about the Dharma. We end up avoiding our practice, and come up with all sorts of excuses about how much work we need to do that prevents us from study, reflection and meditation.
Busyness as Habit
Of course, our practice should not all take place on our cushions–we always need to integrate it with daily life. But we should be kind to ourselves as well and acknowledge the benefits of taking the time to allow our minds to rest. Unless we develop a stable base of meditation, stressful situations that we certainly will encounter can shake us or seem like huge obstacles.
If we examine carefully, we may be surprised to see that we actively cultivate busyness. These days it has become a type of status symbol to be constantly busy. We don’t consider that we are fortunate enough to have enough income to care for our family and to provide the basic necessities–the very things that should lower our stress. Instead, we seem to chase after busyness–these days if you ask people how they are they often answer, “I’m so busy.” People compete to see who can complain the most about being stressed or overworked.
Ignorance and Busyness
What are we doing in this cycle of endless activity? Aren’t we distracting ourselves from the possibility of reconnecting with inherent inner peace? We can contemplate this and observe how we fill our time with unimportant or pointless activities. Observe this in your own situation and try to see why you are afraid not to be busy. Can you recognise any fear or clinging to position? What do you experience when you analyze your attitude?
As we face constant stimuli from the external world, we have forgotten that we have the ability to slow down and call a halt to always being on call. And because we are doing something (or many things!), we can’t admit that we are being lazy about cultivating and caring for our minds.
Our speediness fills our time so that we don’t face our real issues. And then we claim that we are mentally exhausted, and instead of restoring ourselves with practice, we veg out by streaming videos or mindlessly scrolling through our social media feeds. In earlier times, laziness more often manifested in sloth–people wasted time with idle chit-chat or lounging about. These days, we surrender to over-stimulation. But if we are honest with ourselves the result is the same.
Helpful Remedies for Busy Laziness
Two contemplations can help us disengage from this whirl of activity. You may find that one of these works better for you than the other, or you may prefer to alternate reflections.
- First we should regularly contemplate impermanence. All the activities we immerse ourselves in are ephemeral–regardless of how important they may seem at the moment. And we ourselves are coming closer and closer to our deaths. Really take this to heart by considering your own vulnerability. Classic texts suggest that we think of ourselves as a person condemned to death awaiting the fall of the executioner’s axe. Once we sincerely begin to feel this inevitability, our laziness will naturally fall away.
Think carefully–If today was your last day on earth, would you prioritize the same things?
- Secondly, we should reflect on the shortcomings of cyclic existence. How many times do we chase after one experience or situation or possession hoping that it will fulfill us or bring happiness. But time after time we end up frustrated or disappointed. We’re on a treadmill but the rewards are very fleeting.
Do you know anyone who at the end of her life said, “I wish I had worked harder or longer?” Those who lack material comforts suffer, but we are intelligent enough to observe that even those with many luxuries also feel stress, anxiety and dissatisfaction.
Analyzing our Own Busyness: Exercises to Identify and Break the Habit
- Begin by taking 5 minutes today, preferably in the morning to look at your schedule for the day or week. You may see that you have a long “to-do list.” Take three deep, mindful breaths and think to yourself, “I will do what is meaningful and important. Today, or this week, I will structure my time to benefit myself and others.”
- Set the intention to give yourself permission to be still and to take breaks today or this week. Start small. Take a 3-5 minute break between projects. Do some gentle breathing. Look out the window or walk outside and observe nature for a few minutes. The world will not end!
- Begin to edit your list. What things are truly crucial to your life? Are you spending the majority of your day or week doing those things? What activities are time-suckers or not really meaningful? Would there be any down side if you did not engage in those activities? Be honest with yourself about how you spend your time.
- Seriously consider that you can take back some control. We do have options–often when we are busy we say that we have no choice–but is that true? Are you chasing after activities in order to feel more important, successful or valuable?
- When someone asks you how you are and you respond, “busy”–try to stop a moment and look at that thought. Ask yourself if that reflects reality. Be very attentive to this reflexive response. Are you answering in this way because it is just a habit?
- Set aside time where you disconnect from digital connection. Some people find it effective to set very specific schedules for checking devices or dealing with emails. Others may prefer to take weekend or day-long breaks to allow time for contemplation and for doing nothing. Again, start small–this may feel excruciatingly boring at first. But approach doing nothing with curiosity and observe what happens to your mind!
Share Your Own Tips
What other techniques have you found that help you to overcome busy laziness? Please share these in the comments section below so that others can benefit from your experience.