The Suffering of Busyness

Part I: Distraction and the Fear of Space – An Invitation to Just Stop

I recently heard about a study that found that “busyness” is the new status symbol. I grew up with images of the rich and powerful lounging on a long white beach, drink in-hand and not a care in the world. Now it seems that you prove your social standing by flaunting the number of engagements, commitments and responsibilities you have on any given day. The study showed that this is as true among the working class as it is for the middle and upper-middle classes. I have to admit: too often I find myself commiserating with a friend about my long to-do lists, my numerous and scattered work duties, child care needs, the dirty house, my forever overflowing inbox… It’s an easy – and seemingly always accurate – answer to “how are you?” Busy, busy, busy. Like we all are.

In the Buddhist teachings the particular suffering of humans is sometimes characterized as “busyness” or distraction. As I listened to the NPR report, I couldn’t help feel that this was a Dharmic lesson, pointing out the web of suffering my fellow humans and I are profoundly adept at enveloping ourselves in. So what is this busyness about? Why are we filling our time with more to-do’s just as we are filling our open spaces with more and more developments?

That’s it, of course. We are filling space – the space of time and the space of place. The great Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche pointed out that one of the primary human anxieties is the “fear of space:” we are “afraid of the truth of non-reference point.” Activity gives us a point of reference; we have something to do, somewhere to be. Our activities are the hooks we hang the cloak of personal identity on. And in the empty slots of our schedule – or when we find ourselves alone at a restaurant table for a brief, uncomfortable moment – we can check Facebook, write a text, read another news article, post on Instagram. The line between “meaningful” activity and distraction is blurry. When I’m reading the news, am I informing myself about the state of the world, or distracting myself from the looming question of “what am I doing with my life?” When I’m doing the dishes, am I cleaning the kitchen or am I avoiding having to have that conversation with my husband? Regardless, I’m staying busy. I do, therefore I am. I’m busy, therefore I exist. As long as we keep moving we won’t have to face the space between all our activities and distractions. Remember the road runner running over the cliff? As long as he keeps running he’s fine; it’s only when he looks down, that he falls.

So what are we so fervently distracting ourselves from? In part, our activity keeps us from looking at some of the basic truths of our existence – inherent impermanence, profound uncertainty. Who or what am I apart from my doing? What if there is no solidity, no fixed reference point that I can always depend on? What if there really is no ground? All things are passing, and when we stop for a moment, we perceive this very directly. The wind of this hot summer afternoon blows through the open windows, then rests. The bird twitters to its friends, flies off. Even the things I feel righteously worried about today may not be a big deal in the not-too-distant future. All things are passing and really, I have no idea where it’s all going.

These realizations are not cause for depression, according to the Buddha, just reminders of the fragility – and preciousness – of our lives. In this uncertainty, we become vulnerable, the “soft spot” of our hearts, as Trungpa described it, becomes exposed. Relaxing into that vulnerable not-knowing is a courageous way to be – willing to be in the direct experience of the present moment, whatever that holds, open and receptive to whatever is arising. It’s also an opportunity to taste the vast, interconnected spaciousness that is the truth of being, the groundless ground that has no reference points, no handles, no markers. Buddhism calls this Prajna Paramita, transcendent wisdom – empty, luminous, radiant, the source of all.

Being in solitary retreat is a great way to meet and face the basic fear of space. I remember one of my solo retreats at Tara Mandala’s Luminous Peak cabin, an eight-by-eight-foot space with a birds-eye view of the “secret” meadow below and vast views of the La Plata Mountains 80 miles in the distance. One of my poems written shortly after I had started my retreat begins with this realization:

i see that i am afraid of space
terror of losing the thread
of what comes next

In retreat I’ll often ask myself why I ever thought it was a good idea to separate myself from my kids, my husband, all the fun things I could be doing instead of sitting alone with myself. It’s lonely at times. Nowhere to go. No one calling on me for this or that. But over time my eyes see in a new way, my ears hear in a new way. I coo duets with the evening dove. As night falls, I watch the dragonflies hook their front legs to the Ponderosa branch and hang Christ-like with spread wings until the early dawn. Far from alone, I am more part of the world around me than ever. Plugged in to the ultimate inter-net, I feel the seamlessness of my connection to all things.

But we don’t have to go into retreat to pause our busyness. I’ve been working with a little mantra for myself: Could I just stop? Stop the dishes, stop the emails, stop the planning, worrying, forever-commenting stream of mind. Could I just rest – for a moment – right now, just as it is, without needing to change it, adapt it, manipulate it? Sometimes this means I actually turn off the faucet, close the computer, put down my phone. Sometimes it just means taking a short moment, letting my awareness expand and rest in the fullness of my experience. Feel my body – gut gurgling, eyes slightly sore, skin cooled by the evening wind. Hear the welcome rain on the window sill, the slight ringing in my ears. Notice the gap between my thoughts. There is space here, but it’s not scary at all. It’s open and gentle and infinitely generous, always present, awaiting my return like a mother with open arms.

2 thoughts on “The Suffering of Busyness

  1. Beautiful. I especially love the parts about silent retreat, and the connection that becomes present once one gets past that initial feeling of insanity. 🙂 Thanks for the reminder that just being is enough, and that the spaces between are a gift.

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