On being not busy

On being not busy
26th October 2017 Tim Malnick
In Presence at Work

I am not busy at the moment.

This is deliberate. I am trying to create space and to simply not be busy. To be more, and to do less.

Here are some things I am noticing as I enter this phase of not being busy:


People like to ask me, ‘are you busy?’

Very often friends, colleagues and clients by way of a friendly greeting ask ‘are you busy?’ I’m interested in this. I notice they are more likely to ask this than asking me ‘are you well?’ or ‘are you happy?’ and other more important questions. People often respond, ‘busy’ when I ask them how they are. Has ‘busyness’ become some kind of modern day symbol that (so we believe) represents the things that we truly want? Do we assume that to be busy is also to be well, happy and fulfilled? I think our culture is fuelled by an untested and largely unconscious idea that to be busy is somehow (in the face of much evidence to the contrary) to also be happy and well. But I don’t think it is.


The shame of inactivity:

It was not so easy for me initially to say ‘no, I am not busy’, while keeping a smile on my face. There were inward flickers of shame, self-judgement and social awkwardness – even though my non-busyness has been intentional and conscious. I’ve become interested in the shame connected with not being busy. Why do we not feel the same degree of shame and awkwardness in being addictively and unnecessarily busy? People tend to value the quantity of activity (i.e. how busy we are, how many things we do) rather than the more important quality of activity (whether what we are doing is beautiful, enjoyable, and contributing positively to our world in some way).

In the Tibetan tradition of Dzogchen (the Great Perfection) they describe wise laziness as a state of awareness, non-doing and relaxation from which all skilful activity ultimately comes. They describe stupid laziness as marked by frenetic activity and constant, habitual busyness, which takes our time, energy and attention without helping us become any wiser, kinder or more useful to the world.

I’ve recently started to feel very ok telling people that I am not busy. This is leading to some very nice conversations. It seems that despite the undercurrent of shame and judgement, many people have a deep yearning for the sense of space and true relaxation that lies beyond habitual busyness.


Mind the Gap:

The voices of shame lead me to wonder about how threatening any gap in activity, however brief, is for people. Most people find a conversational pause of more than a few seconds quite awkward. A one-hour meeting beginning with even a minute’s silence is toe curlingly uncomfortable to many. The gap between one thing and another, between one phase of life, one job role, one relationship and the next, is often a space of ‘nothing very much’, viewed with apprehension and discomfort. What is (or isn’t) in the gap that we are so afraid of? Becoming truly curious about this space that is always between one thing and another, between each moment and the next, can tell us a lot about our personal and cultural addictions to being busy.


Experiencing our innate human goodness:

Still early in my experiment I am finding that to allow myself moments of being truly not busy opens up a wonderful space of freedom and possibility. It is hard to express this in words. The act of sitting, quietly on my sofa, with a sense of nothing whatsoever to do, while still being present and aware, is both revelatory and endlessly nourishing.

There is something profound yet simple in this actual experience of non busyness. The simplicity is that basically you are just not doing anything – while still remaining conscious, connected and aware. This is aware doing nothing as opposed to mindlessly spacing out – which are actually lazy forms of being busy, filling time but not really being engaged. To be truly not busy is simple, though perhaps not easy – at first at least. Just don’t do anything, but stay aware and conscious.

The profound side is that this simple gesture opens up a sense of freedom and contentment which is entirely accessible to us all. To be not busy, while aware and at ease is to connect with what the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche describes as our Basic Goodness, a universal, innate, natural sense of well being. This sense of well being is nothing we ever had to earn, nothing we have to deserve, and as it turns out nothing we have to strive for or create. It is there as soon as we let go of the day-to-day preoccupations, fantasies and unconscious drivers that keep us so … busy.


Four questions on not-being-busy:

  • How and why has our culture become so complicated and confused that we are trained from an early age to deny ourselves the basic birthright of simply being?
  • Whose interests does it serve that we are educated and socialised to deny ourselves the nourishment, clarity and creativity of periods of conscious non-doing as a part of every day life and work?
  • Who/what is the thing that each of us fears losing if we were to fully dive into the experience of non-doing?
  • Who/what is it that each of us must develop faith and trust in if we are to fully embrace the rich experience of non-doing?

Answers not on a postcard please. Nor in written form, though conversation and reflection on such things is fun. Perhaps answers, such as they are, will pop up, in the great, alive space of life itself, where everything is happening yet no one is particularly busy.