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Monday, June 13, 2011

Busy-ness: the intoxicant of the information age

I've had this post sitting in draft form for a while. Actually, all I had was the title and a strong sense that I wanted to say something about it but my thoughts hadn't organised themselves yet.

Yesterday was a cold, windy, rainy Sunday in Sydney and I had the privilege of not having anything I had to do. Usually I play soccer on Sundays but the fields are closed so I found myself with a whole Sunday to myself. I spent a couple of hours of the morning in one of my favourite cafes having lunch and reading the paper. In it was an article about boredom which is the catalyst for me to start organising those thoughts.

The author made the point that boredom has been all but eradicated in the modern world with laptops, mobile phones (cell phones), iPhones, iPads and all manner of gigaws constantly on tap. She observed that neither kids nor adults get bored these days and she even recounted hearing people on their mobiles in public toilets. When I catch the bus into the city here in Sydney I see people texting, tweeting,  facebooking etc. and you even observe this behaviour in people who are sitting in cafes or restaurants with other people - presumably people they wanted to spend time with! (For the record, I think we should establish a new norm in modern society that says that it's rude to take non-urgent phone calls or texts when you are on an outing with someone.)

For youth, for whom the meaning of life at their stage is connection with and acceptance by others, this is almost par for the course. However in adults I see it too. One of the businesses I run is a leadership development business – I run leadership programs for corporates. You see this behaviour in the breaks with people dashing out to check their mobiles as if their staff/family/the outside world couldn’t possibly survive a whole day without them. There’s almost a sense that if I am so busy that I need to take calls in the break then I’m very needed or important. (It’s funny how this often tapers off a little after I reveal that good leaders who develop and trust their staff tend not to do this much.)

The author of the article I was reading suggested that many of us would prefer to feel overwhelmed with too much activity or stimulation than to feel bored. She also wondered, as I have, whether the constant external stimulation might diminish the creativity and imagination of brewing generations. She observed that many of her best ideas come in the moments where her mind has been quiet and at least hinted that maybe this eradication of boredom wasn't an entirely good thing. Indeed it’s funny that it took a quiet Sunday morning for the thoughts for this post to come together isn’t it?

I have experienced both extremes of this busy-ness boredom continuum. I am from Generation X, so my childhood was pre-information age and added to that, my first decade was spent in country South Australia. I have many memories of being bored as a child. Where I had a choice about what to do, this often did drive imaginative activity - the scrub behind our house was the background for all sorts of heroic adventures from the jungle to the wild west, and I do tend to be a very creative person as an adult. Where I didn't have a choice about what to do, like the time my parents went to their friends' place for dinner and left me and my two brothers in the car in the driveway for the entire evening, I had extended rendezvous with boredom. (Did you know the plural of rendezvous is rendezvous?)

My career has taken me to the other extreme. Having worked in human resources in consulting firms and a large law firm, achieved an executive level role in a publicly listed company by age 32, and then started my own businesses, I have more experience than I'd like of the activity overwhelm of which the article's author spoke. I've spent almost 20 years in or engaged with the corporate world and there is no end of activity and busy-ness that will happily devour your time if you let it.

Busy-ness builds its own momentum. I often feel this acutely if I have been really busy at work and then I go on holidays. When I was in the corporate world (as opposed to running my own business where I can at least sometimes set the pace) it used to take about 3 days of holiday to relax to the point where I began to slow down. Then it took another few days to completely step off the treadmill and be where I was.

For this reason I have always encouraged my staff to take off at least one three week block of annual leave each year to really give themselves a chance to be in their own space before beginning to warm the engine up again in anticipation of returning to work. As I understand it there are many countries in the world that only give workers two weeks of annual leave a year (or less) of which the United States is one (in Australia we get four which barely seems enough to me). Busy-ness makes mindfulness difficult. Given the pace and productivity expected in the corporate world these days it must be very challenging for the average non-awakened or minimally awakened person in these countries to ever truly stop and be where they are. 

The Buddha spoke of boredom as one of the hindrances - the things that get in the way of us being mindful and present to our current experience. It's a form of aversion to our current experience. Think about it - when we feel bored, why is it that we seek stimulation? I'd like to suggest two main drives for this seeking that represent two sides of a coin that lies right at the heart of the dharma.

The first drive is a hunger or thirst for pleasure: I'm not feeling much at the moment (or it's the only two weeks off I have this year!) so I'll do something to see if I can get myself a pleasure hit - food, social stimulation, novel surroundings, books, movies, chores (those who do them do receive some pay-off or they wouldn't do them) hobbies, the list goes on. My husband and I sometimes experience this as an inexplicable interest in moving our lives somewhere else. It’s like things have been a bit ‘the same’ for too long and we need a change. We recently resisted this when we realised how embedded we are in our local community – something we value very much. Sure enough, the desire to move for stimulation passed, although I’m sure it’s not the last we’ll see of it.

I want to be clear here that I'm not suggesting activity or indeed variety is a bad thing. Activity is a necessary part of life's wheels turning around. The Buddha recommended 'the middle way' - a balanced approach rather than extremes. What I'm actually suggesting is that in our modern world we've possibly reached an extreme where instead of a balance between stimulation and rest for our body/mind we have constant stimulation.  We deprive our body/minds of the time to digest the stimuli, find its patterns and highlight the bits that are important to us. It’s like the Protestant work ethic has taken us over and we wear it as a badge of honour that we are so busy that we haven’t been able to make time for the indulgences of spending time with family and friends, let alone other regenerative activities. Seen this way, spending time doing nothing seems like a waste of a precious resource. I’m going to suggest however, that doing nothing is highly undervalued.

I can think of some times when the seeking of a pleasure hit through activity might be a skilful thing. Part of emotional intelligence is the ability to manage our own emotions. If I need to engage in bouts of activity that I don't enjoy much and I'm not yet at a stage of being where I can engage in those with equanimity, then rewarding myself with a positive activity at the end of the unenjoyable activity could be a skilful and fast way to manage my own mood.

For example, I really don’t enjoy planning training programs – I love facilitating them but I hate planning them. I have a strong preference for the big picture. Designing training, while requiring an eye on the big picture, is a very detailed activity. It drives me nuts. So when I’ve finished a bout of design and generally feel rather drained, I might stimulate my body/mind with an activity I do enjoy (such as writing these blogs, taking my dogs for a run, going to soccer or sprint training, or listening to some music) to usher out the unpleasant feelings.

So as a tactic on the way to being able to accept doing things I don't enjoy with equanimity, it can be useful. However why stop there when the more liberating option is to not create such an unpleasant internal stir when faced with doing something I don't enjoy? I’d much prefer to be able to do what I have to do (design the training session) with calmness and grace rather than make that activity more unpleasant than it already is and then have to induce pleasure hits to help me recover from it.

On the other side of the 'seeking a pleasure hit' coin is 'aversion to pain'. When things get quiet, I might start to hear and feel things that are stressful, anxiety-provoking or unpleasant in some way. So I drown them out with stimulation [insert same  list of possible stimulants as above]. A friend of mind told me that she'd tried meditation once and was hopeless at it. (This kind of statement always disappoints me a bit because it's an indication that the popular understanding of meditation is inaccurate – like I’m not meditating unless my mind is empty and calm. We need both serenity AN D insight for growth.) The reason this particular friend thought she was 'bad at it' was because she had all of these upsetting things come into her mind during her sit. I assured her this probably meant she was doing a fine job!

I like the analogy of the puddle of water on the ground. When we let it sit still for a period of time, we see what is at the bottom. When we are busy stirring it up we have no idea what the landscape at the bottom looks like because of all the dirt flowing around. This friend of mine was doing a fine job because it only took her one go at meditation for her to start seeing the bottom of her pool (although it may also have just been the stirred up sediment of over-stimulation – we didn’t talk about it enough for me to know). When we keep ourselves busy, we keep stirring the pool and we never get to see the landscape of the ground's surface underneath. Our view is obscured and disturbed by all the noise in between. Because what's often at the bottom of our body/mind's pool is some form of fear (often adopted as a means of self protection when we were young), we often elect to keep the view obscured because it scares us to look at it.

Going on a meditation retreat is a classic example of this. When you tell someone you're doing this, you can always tell whether they've ever been on a meditation retreat by their reaction. If they say something like 'oh, how lovely, have a relaxing time' it's a pretty safe bet they're thinking of a spa retreat and have no idea of what a meditation retreat entails. On the latter, the facilities are usually pretty basic and there are no massages and facials, only time to let your body/mind quieten down and the opportunity to see what's at the bottom of your pool. (There are also often dharma talks that help you process what you see.) While this can be confronting and difficult I almost always come home with an important new insight or resolution as a result of these retreats that improves my life in a significant way. This is only possible because I've quietened down enough to see what bumps are at the bottom of my pool.

Inherent in what I'm saying is an assumption that we want to know our reality better and achieve some of those qualities of an awakened body/mind - a peace and joy that is not dependent upon the outside world being 'just so'. If this is not something you're moving towards in life then you're unlikely to be willing to withstand the discomfort of knowing the mudscape of your own puddle. It takes courage and a willingness to be uncomfortable in order to reap these kinds of rewards.

However not doing this has its own downside. The frequent pang of the aversion to boredom is only one and is possibly the most easily avoided. Like other intoxicants that blur our vision of our reality (e.g.alcohol and drugs) being busy can give us a short term hit of pleasure, and it can distract us temporarily from our anxieties. So while we have access to our distractions, we can keep them at bay. However this distraction takes energy and just because we don't look at the bumpy bits of our puddle doesn't mean they don’t affect us.

For example if one of the bumps in my pool is a nagging sense of not being competent enough to deserve love, that fear will manifest in many places throughout life. I might get upset when something I do isn't perfect, when I lose a contest of some kind, if I don't get the praise I thought I deserved, or if I don't get the attention and reassurance I want from my partner. I can 'ride over the top' of those pains by distracting myself (or giving others a hard time for not behaving as I want them to) but riding over the top of the bumps never makes them go away. 

As the sandscape of the ocean affects the pattern of its waves and currents, the mudscape of our emotional mud puddles affects the pattern of our daily experience. If we want to smooth them out we need first to look at them directly and be willing to engage with them (if the Buddha’s first and second noble truths are ringing in your ears that is appropriate).

Now there’s a chance that the parents out there reading this might have something like the following script flowing through their mind at the moment: what a luxury to be able to sit and read the paper in a cafe – there is no such luxury for parents! While it may be that this particular activity is rather difficult with kids, that doesn’t mean that non-busy time is inaccessible for parents, it’s just that it might need to be traded for some busy time.

So perhaps your children could play one sport each rather than three, maybe they don’t need to learn an instrument if they don’t want, maybe their entire weekend doesn’t have to be filled with scheduled activities that require Mum and Dad to supervise or chauffer. It might mean that you have to choose some ‘being time’ together rather than it all being ‘doing time’, or possibly seize the moments in between activities to spend as quiet time rather than automatically move to the next thing on the to-do list. Parenting definitely presents its challenges to finding quiet time but that doesn’t mean it’s not do-able. Some parents I know get a babysitter once a month for ‘date night’ with their spouse – why not ‘quiet night’ with yourself while your spouse takes the kids out?

At the heart of it, there essentially needs to be a valuing of slow time – time to allow our body/mind a rest from constantly receiving stimulatory data and give it a chance to digest it, to process it. In truth your sub-conscious will do some of this for you during sleep among other times, but you still need time that is quiet enough to hear what it has found. If you genuinely value it, you will find a way to it. It may take some time and effort to disentangle yourself from your current environment’s expectations of access to you, but it’s possible. For those like me who run their own business, it can be as simple as a willingness to trade income for time – to buy your time back.  I am in the process of doing this right now.

Of course this can bring up other issues such as a clinging to material things. Luckily my husband and I have very similar values with regard to money and material things. We have fairly modest needs, we both know from experience that buying stuff doesn’t bring any kind of lasting happiness, and we’ve both managed to free ourselves from the hypnotic treadmill of the ascending corporate career. If one of us still needed those things it would be a more difficult road to trading money for my time but nevertheless still an achievable one depending on how much value I put on it. Regardless of how accessible the ‘working less’ arrangement is for you, you can, in your current arrangement, at least learn how to say no to more work if it will push you into activity overload. That is a skill that can be learned and often an interesting developmental challenge in itself for some people.

Whether fleeing boredom is a hindrance to our development really depends on the intention behind our launch into activity. Are we launching because life just doesn’t seem okay unless we get a pleasure hit? Are we launching because of a desire to avoid the growing awareness of internal disquiet? Or is the activity really necessary to keep the wheels turning or to honour another noble value besides personal growth?

If we want progress along a path to this kind of peace and joy that is not dependent on the world around us conforming to our own script, perhaps we need to do less, slow down, and let the sediment of our own body/mind's puddle settle. That might allow us to see clearly how our experience works which is what happened for the Buddha during his awakening.


  1. Its amazing how much of this I was able to relate to. Its also comforting to know that the changes I seek at the moment (more time, less busyness) its not a strange, unheard of, journey.

    My wife, daughter and I (before the birth of our second) spent 8 days in Fiji (the end of '09 I think) and for the first 3 days of our trip I was going OUT OF MY MIND!!! There was nothing to do! Luckily for me, I bought my laptop and the bar had wifi! Phew, disaster averted, I could work. It took a solid 4 days before I felt myself winding down. This was my first real realisation that I needed to change my life.

    I've since changed jobs. No longer am I commuting to the city (1.5hrs each way) and working crap loads of overtime, weekends etc in a highly stressful environment. I now work for a local company in a relaxed environment and getting a lot of time at home.

    The next thing for me to work on is what I have been calling an e-tox. I want to stop looking at screens. TV, Ipad, Iphone, computer etc. All the things you mentioned because I have noticed how much I tend to use those devices before I just sit and watch my children or meditate.

    One part of your post confused me though and I'm worried about it a little bit. You said that your friend had unpleasant thoughts during their meditation and you said that they were doing a fine job. I have been working on clearing my head of thoughts during meditation and you seem to be wanting to encourage them. Perhaps you can touch on this a little bit on Thursday because while a clear-headed meditation seems to be benefiting me a lot, if I can gain more benefit for the same practice, I'd love to know how. :)

    Thanks for the post, really enjoyed it.

  2. I love this post Lenore. I can relate to so much of it. Being a gen X-er myself :)

    This weekend I was down in Canberra (my husband is currently based there) and I made sure I left my iPhone in an alternate room and just tried to "be" with my daughter and husband. It was nice and I didn't miss it. I wish I could do that with work.


  3. From the Harvard Business Review's 'Daily Stat' today:

    American Students More Prone to Boredom

    U.S. college students are more prone to being bored than their German counterparts, scoring an average of 77.52 on the self-reported Boredom Proneness Scale, compared with 71.80 for the Germans, says a study led by Stephen J. Vodanovich of the University of West Florida. Americans may rely on external stimuli for entertainment to a greater extent than Germans, the researchers say. Past research suggests that boredom is more common in people who can't organize their time effectively.

    LL: some interesting points about the role of external stimuli - perhaps relevant to the concern of young people not building their imagination muscles. Also interesting that boredom is spoken of as a negative thing that we could avoid if only we organised our time well.