Happy Wednesday Friends,
So many people go through life never really having lived. They say they want to spend their time on important things, but their days are filled with “responsibilities,” so there’s no time left for living.
When you wake up, there’s much to do: make the bed, brush your teeth, shower, feed the dog or cat, put last night’s dishes in the dishwasher, cook breakfast, and make coffee - the list is endless. You apply makeup and add volume to your hair on the way to work. Your day fills up with messages, emails, video calls, and urgent projects. You feel helpless to keep up with it all.
Life seems to live you, to carry you along with its irregular momentum. It’s as if everything is happening to you, and you have no say.
Sometimes at night, you may lie awake wondering, “What am I doing with my life?” But by morning, your doubts are overshadowed by the urgency of the day’s agenda, and you’re back where you started.
Filling Our Lives With Trivialities
I often feel hurried, as if some invisible force pushes me to move faster, work harder, and produce more. It turns out that force is my mind, which conflates productivity with self-worth.
When I’m not paying attention, I can find myself attempting to keep up with the speed of my mind. I write down ideas, do what my mind tells me, and try to do them all. Despite my diligence, I never keep up with thinking, so the list expands daily. If I’m not careful, I can feel like Lucy in the famous chocolate factory episode of I Love Lucy, where she’s frantically trying to keep up with wrapping chocolates.
But it’s not just me. For decades, people have described modern life as a rat race, a never-ending treadmill of trying to get ahead. Ahead of what exactly, I have never figured out. Life can feel tedious, repetitive, exhausting, and ultimately empty in all the atomizing.
We look forward to the day when we can finally relax and enjoy life. But until then, we will be busy planning, doing, and checking things off the list. Unfortunately, some of us never make it. My friend’s grandfather died of a heart attack on the day he retired.
The following passage from Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal humorously captures our predicament:
“How you been?
How was your week?
You name the question, busy is the answer. Yes, yes, I know, we are all terribly busy doing terribly important things. But I think more often than not, busy is simply the most acceptable knee-jerk response.
Certainly there are more interesting, more original and more accurate ways to answer the question “How are you?” I’m hungry for a burrito; I’m envious of my best friend; I’m frustrated by everything that’s broken in my house; I’m itchy.”
Yet busy stands alone as the easiest way of summarizing all that you do and all that you are. “I am busy” is the short way of saying — implying — “My time is filled, my phone does not stop ringing and you (therefore) should think well of me.”
Have people always been this busy? Did cave men think they were busy, too? “This week is crazy — I’ve got about 10 caves to draw on. Can I meet you by the fire next week?”
I have a hunch that there is a direct correlation between the advent of coffee bars and the increase in busy-ness. Look at us. We’re all pros now at hailing cabs/making Xeroxes/carpooling/performing surgery with a to-go cup in hand. We’re skittering about like hyperactive gerbils, high not just on caffeine, but on caffeine’s luscious byproduct, productivity. Ah, the joy of doing, accomplishing, crossing off.
As kids, our stock answer to most every question “What did you do at school today?” “What’s new?” was, “Nothing.” In our country’s history there have been exactly seven kids who responded with a statement other than “nothing,” and three of those were named Hanson. Then, somewhere on the way to adulthood, we each took a 180-degree turn. We cashed in our “nothing” for “busy.”
I’m starting to think that, like youth, the word nothing is wasted on the young. Maybe we should try re-introducing it into our grown-up vernacular. Nothing. I say it a few times and I can feel myself becoming more quiet, decaffeinated, Zen-ish. Nothing. Now I’m picturing emptiness, a white blanket, a couple ducks gliding on a still pond. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. How did we get so far away from it?”
Sogyal Rinpoche describes this way of living as “active laziness.” We are all so busy, yet we will have accomplished so little at the end of our lives. Meanwhile, we will have missed the bigger project of life—the self that never dies.
Dilgo Khyentse visited the West on many occasions. When his students asked what stood out most, he said, “In the West, people waste time.” And they waste their lives. Reflecting on our lives, we see that he was right. We cram our days with compulsive activity, so there’s no time to confront the real issues.
Even someone in the West who is not working is still very busy with projects and activities. All this busyness is a form of laziness. Sogyal Rinpoche refers to it as active laziness because being preoccupied with activity means you never risk looking into life’s more profound questions. Instead, your days are consumed in the mechanism of doing, forever completing and accomplishing. And when you die, you will have little to show for your efforts.
I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile—like chasing the wind! — Ecclesiastes
On the one hand, it’s great that you’re working on so many projects, but there’s a larger project that is waiting for you that you’re neglecting.
Speeding Up Is a Losing Game
My mind implores me to speed up while my heart pleads to slow down. My inner knowing understands that life is as brief as a finger snap. Yet the mind is too busy attending to trivialities to see the preciousness of life.
I think that by accelerating, I will be able to get through my to-do list faster and find relief from anxiety sooner. But freedom never comes because I never reach the end of my to-do list. Life is forever changing, and the mind is always creating new projects.
Being chronically busy is a betrayal of your essence, abandoning the one chance to realize the awe and mystery of being human. When lost in the details, the beauty and grace of everyday life are overlooked, the simple pleasures of inhabiting this body and all its sense pleasures neglected. We miss the simple joy of just being alive.
“Generally, we waste our lives, distracted from our true selves, in endless activity. Meditation is the way to bring us back to ourselves, where we can really experience and taste our full being.” — Sogyal Rinpoche
Reuniting With Your True Nature
What would it be like to experience your true nature, to give your kind attention to everything and everyone, including yourself? Is it possible to imbue every act with love, compassion, and understanding? What if you were to discover your birthright, that inner dimension so long neglected, and unite it with the fullness of the human experience in all its mystery and grandeur?
You can, but it requires slowing down to the actual speed of life to become sensitive and attentive to what has been before you all along. As Gandhi said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
Until next week,
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I still reply with ‘nothing’ to a lot of questions (but I’ve always been a rebel). The odd looks that you get from people when you reply ‘nothing’ are funny (to me), but also interesting, for the reasons you explore so well in your article Ryan. It’s simply not a socially acceptable answer for a person in their 30s (or 40s, or 50s or maybe even 60s)
At my sons toddler group I was twice asked what we did for his second birthday. I had to really think about it. A week had passed. I said “Nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary. It was just a normal day, but every day is special for us”. The two ladies I said this to had no idea how to respond. I think a got a silent nod and an “oh”. They moved on to speak with other people.
I knew what the correct response should have been. That I baked a cake. That we had invited people to our house. That we sang songs and played party games. Listened to children's music.
But we didn’t do those things. We had a slow morning, as always. We got our son a bike, which was waiting for him downstairs when he woke up. The children were on the sofa with me. Morning tv was on in the background. Lots of hugs and kisses. Lots of laughter. Our amazing, normal everyday. It’s not ‘nothing’, it’s everything!
Great article Ryan,thanks.
"The mind implores us to speed up while the heart pleads to slow down"
Yes I've experienced that, being pulled around by my mind trying to do the impossible and I'm almost hyper ventilating and my chest is fit to burst with my heart's resistance. Sometimes I think I'm going to have a heart attack and yes the answer is to simply slow down and come back to the body, ground yourself in the belly.