#5224 – On the virtues of idleness and the perils of being too busy

The Nonduality Highlights
#5224 – Monday, June 2nd, 2014 – Editor: Dustin LindenSmith

A favourite new blogger of mine named Shane Parrish showcased some excerpts from a book on idleness last month:


The book is called Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing, by Andrew Smart. Parrish opens his piece with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke:

I have often wondered whether especially those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spent in the most profound activity. Whether our actions themselves, even if they do not take place until later, are nothing more than the last reverberations of a vast movement that occurs within us during idle days.

The book’s author asserts that idleness has become a lost art, what with our culture’s ongoing obsession with being reachable and working at all hours of the day and night. He makes note of neuroscientific research that supports the notion that our brains really need rest in order to support our whole health.

Smart also argues that being bored is an essential key to self-knowledge:

What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self— and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason. Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.

This calls to mind for me a conversation I remember having with Jerry around 1997 when I asked him about his own meditation or spiritual practices. He eschewed any formal sitting practice at the time, although he told me that he tended to spend a certain chunk of time each day just sitting on a chair at his window, looking outside and doing or thinking about absolutely nothing at all. During our recent interview, Joan Tollifson also mentioned devoting a significant portion of her day to that same activity. Ramana also used to sit around idly for most of the day in silence.

Elizabeth Renzetti is a favourite columnist of mine at one of Canada’s national newspapers, The Globe and Mail. She reviewed a book in March on chronic busyness by Brigid Schulte, who is a reporter for The Washington Post and a very busy mom. The book is called Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time:


Renzetti reports that Schulte has diagnosed us with a busyness addiction “which leads to stress and exhaustion and lives half-lived.” Schulte refers to a recent Canadian study about work-life balance in the new millennium which revealed that the many things respondents were too busy to do included sleep, eating dessert, and having sex. Renzetti asks: “Considering those are the three best things in the world, what on earth are we doing instead?” She responds to her own question with this:

Scratching a status itch, apparently. We choose busyness. We think we’re run off our pins, but as noted by one of Ms. Schulte’s sources, the University of Maryland’s John Robinson, we actually have more leisure time now than we did 50 years ago. We just fail to recognize it, or squander it on meaningless diversions. The truth is we secretly like our frenzy, because we live in a culture that equates frenzy with success.

When Renzetti listed some of the things we could delete from our to-do lists such as checking our e-mail incessantly throughout the day or cleaning so much, I started to think about certain things I do sort of mindlessly that keep me busy but to little constructive effect (ahem, Facebook). When taken in hand with Andrew Smart’s support of the virtues of being idle, it makes me wonder if I shouldn’t just be doing nothing a little more often each day.

Please don’t tell my wife I said that, though. She already doesn’t think I get anything done around here.


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