The Busyness In Our Lives

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This past month, many questions in classes and comments in casual conversations were about busyness: the sense of having many things to do and not enough time to do them. Usually our response is to keep plugging on, hurrying to finish one task so we can get on to the next. For some of us busyness is an occasional experience, when things pile up. For others of us, it is chronic or extreme. It goes on and on, day after day, year after year. The tasks may change, jobs may change, relationships may change, but the busyness continues.

Several years ago we talked about Janet Ruffing’s engaging essay "Resisting the Demon of Busyness" (available at It seems like a good time to explore her ideas again.

Ruffing believes that this unending busyness “is profoundly destructive to self-intimacy, intimacy with the Divine, interrelationships, reflective thought, the social fabric of our society, our care for the planet, and our own psychological and physical health.”  She also notes that contrary to the way most people think about it, busyness is not directly related to how many things we have to do:

Often “very busy” people, that is, people who carry major responsibility, manage to “have all the time” in the world. They do not create an added infusion of “busyness” in their internal attitude toward the work of the day or the conduct of relationships. They do not appear to be racing against the clock. When you are with them, you feel as if you are the only one with whom they are concerned. They do not rush you. They do not rush themselves. They are present, spontaneous, relaxed, receptive. They are able to pay attention to deeper levels of reality.

Sister Jina, the Abbess of Plum Village’s Lower Hamlet explains concretely how it is possible to be active and engaged, but not in a hurry:

When we walk in a hurried way we don’t rest in every step. Instead, we seem to quickly touch the earth in order to get somewhere. So I practice taking the hurry out of my steps so that I can come to rest in every step. It is a bit tricky because there is something in me that tells me if you don’t hurry you will be late. But I also experience that if I don’t hurry I will get there much faster because the hurry comes from the worry and the worry is very heavy and slows me down. If I drop the hurry and the worry I can move a bit quicker and be in every step and be on time. You can try, it is very interesting to experiment with that. You can meet this habit energy that says you have to hurry or you will be late. You can move faster but you don’t need to hurry. It is very handy when you are at the airport and a bit late.

So if busyness is not helpful or sustaining, why is it so common? Janet Ruffing’s insight is that we become overwhelmed by busyness because of ego and institutional pressures. We lose our mindful connection with our bodies and hearts:

. . . there is something about the feeling of busyness that is exhilarating. There is an altered state of consciousness I experience when I swing into action and begin working through today’s “to do” list. A burst of adrenalin carries me from one activity to another. How many things can I get done in the shortest amount of time? Racing against the clock becomes a game, sometimes an unhealthy competition, but nevertheless a game. While I am occupied orchestrating this internal race against time, I can feel both strong and important. My ego is firmly in control. I am clearly the centre of these activities. This particular state of mind is, of course, illusionary. . . .

When I am busy being busy, I avoid making time for leisure, for play, for relationships, for reflection. I take delight in moving fast, being caught up in the rhythm of an institution, a city, a community that runs me, that overwhelms my internal sense of self and my felt responses to internal and external events. I am actually being captivated by a “false” consciousness that is largely generated by the culture outside of me. I go on automatic while believing I am still in charge. When I am busy, I can believe myself to be incredibly important to the scheme of things. I become indispensable, necessary. My ego becomes reassured (while this state lasts) that I am productive, accomplishing something worthwhile and valuable.

Please join us this Thursday for our (unhurried) meditation period and for our discussion of busyness in our lives. Do you agree with Janet Ruffing that our busyness comes not from the length of our to do-lists, but from our egos and our acquiescence to institutional pressures?

Peace and joy to you,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher