“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.” ~Lao Tzu
Whether it’s chores or children, to-do lists or bucket lists—let alone work—modern life moves at a demanding pace. It’s a hamster wheel and, unlike our beloved family pet, we’ve decided it’s not fun.
But as a society we revel in being busy all the time. We consider those who do nothing on the weekend to be dull or lazy. We don’t have time to chew the cud. If William Henry Davies thought his lot “had no time to stop and stare,” he should turn in his grave and see what’s happened since.
Somewhere along the lines, it’s become more than acceptable to live at an unhealthy pace—it’s become “cool.” Instead of saying, “Very well, thanks,” when people ask how we are, today we roll our eyes and reply proudly, “Hectic!”
Where we live, lots of mothers rock up at school, claiming they’ve had four hours of sleep, have no time to walk the dog, and have already been to the gym at 6am. They set the bar high! I feel inadequate if I’m not still replying to emails at 8pm. My phone stays on all night next to my bed in case someone needs me. Every day. Even on holiday. Especially on holiday.
Our house burned down a few years ago—moments after we’d left with our new baby. The fire started in our bedroom where her cot was at the end of our bed.
A lot of the very important stuff we’d gathered around us was lost—clothes, photos, furniture. We knew our attachment to our losses would cause us pain, despite having walked our spiritual path for years.
Buddhism teaches us that attachment causes suffering, so our lesson here was to let go. Our belief system helped avoid the useless “Why me?” type questions that plague us when things don’t seem fair.
No one was hurt. We dug deep, counted our blessings, and tried to go with the flow of things. And we realized (because it was months before we missed “that pair of shoes” or “my favorite” CD) that most of the things we battle for, in the end, we don’t miss at all.
I also realized that much of what I busy myself with all day does matter, but much of it does not. If I don’t do it, it makes no difference. No one notices! But for me, and many people I know, because our poor addled brains are never allowed to switch off, we are often unable to see which is which.
This way of living is not good for us. Trying to juggle everyone’s balls is not good for me! Coloring with my five year old is—if I’m doing it wholeheartedly, mindfully, rather than keeping half an eye on the clock and the other half on the mobile attached to my side. She can color inside the lines; I can’t because I’m not concentrating.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, is as addictive as adrenaline and long been indicated in serious diseases like cancer and stroke. It keeps you awake at night, depletes the adrenal glands, and leads to chronic fatigue.
My husband, once a gym obsessed high-flyer in the corporate world, collapsed burnt out before he was thirty.
He had to completely reassess the demands he made on his body and mind and dramatically scale back both his work commitments (which saw him constantly flying all over the world) and his fitness regime. He learned to relax, something he was not good at.
It has taken him years of practice to heal, and he still suffers chronic fatigue if faced with long, stressful situations.
A wise man once told us, “The mind is like a bucket of dirty water. The more you stir it, the harder it is to see what is in there. If you stop stirring and let it settle, the muck will fall to the bottom and you will be able to see the clear water.”
But admitting that you want to settle isn’t easy in a society that only respects those who can keep it up 24/7. When everyone else is competing to see who’s the busiest, it’s hard to say, “I’m not doing anything this weekend.” People think we’re rude or that something’s wrong.
But it’s vital to rest your brain and body. So here’s my advice. Start small. Start now. You have five minutes to spare. (Yes, you do). Only five minutes of meditating can help calm your mind so you can comfortably relax and do nothing, without feeling anxious.
Meditating is as simple as breathing. You can do it before breakfast, in the bathroom, in your garage. Focus on the flow of breath in and out of your body, the movement of air, the rise and fall of your chest.
When a thought creeps into your head (and it will), acknowledge it and release it. Bring your focus back to your breath.
The more you practice this technique, the easier it will become and the longer you will go without such thoughts bothering you. At some point they will slow down and the quiet space between them will grow. You can do it anywhere, whenever you sit still for five minutes—on the train, in the bath.
Breathe and watch the muck fall to the bottom of the bucket.
Learning the precious art of being un-busy will calm you. It will give you greater clarity, focus, and concentration for times when you need the energy. It will improve the health of your mind and body, and probably even your bank balance.
So, do you have five minutes?