The Cult of Busy

cult of busy

I was a full-fledged member of the cult of busy. We all are.

I don’t recall when, but it probably began before I started using a planner in high school (that I designed for optimal homework, goal and activity tracking).

Or was voted “Most Involved” in the yearbook our Senior year.

And it just got worse from there: overcommitted, overachieving, overwhelmed for the next 15 years. Welcome to “adulthood”!

A vicious cycle of apps to optimize my time and practices to mitigate my stress.

Constantly acknowledged with awe and trepidation by others: “I don’t know how you do it all!”

I had become the epitome of a busy body filling in my life with busy work.

But as Henry David Thoreau asked in the 1850s, “it is not enough to be busy (the ants are busy), we must ask: what are we busy about?”

Why was I so busy?

Compulsive Busyness

“…much of the busyness that we see around us everyday is compulsive busyness. Somebody is avoiding something…[The busyness] can involve us in the most worthy of good works only to distract us from entheos and deny us the privilege of being really useful,” wrote Robert Greenleaf back in the 1970s.

That’s a mouthful, but it is exactly how I was living before I started this blog. How?

I was “compulsively busy” – constantly doing to be doing.

Multiple service and leadership commitments, multiple client projects, running a business, spending time with my family and so many friends – all over the country, traveling all the time, personal growth projects and groups, extensive spiritual practices, hyper-organized home, baking from scratch, driving friends to the airport and the list goes on somehow.

Still “Most Involved” in seemingly the most worthy of good works.

Living life to the fullest, right?

Then, what was I avoiding?

Entheos, the Greek word for the God within, the way the divine creative energy moves through us toward what the world really needs.

In other words, my personal mission: I am in the world to change the world with my creativity.

And as Greenleaf says: the privilege of being really useful.

Everything is Work

What does really useful look like?

My sense is it has little to do with time or effort or money. The resources we measure our lives in.

I think it has to do with our other main resource: our energy.

Or as Julian Gresser describes as our “creative emotion or vitality” when speaking to the relative value of these four resources in Piloting Through Chaos.

In his TEDTalk and book about The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer shares that after a 30-year study of time diaries, two socioligists found that Americans were actually working fewer hours than we were in the 1960’s, but we feel as if we are working more (underlining added for emphasis).

Perhaps because everything is “work” nowadays.

And/or we approach everything with the attitude that it is work, that it is labor – taking time, requiring effort, costing money. And draining energy.

In preparation for a session about work and spirituality I was leading in 2015,  I audited my own work.

All of it. Paid work, unpaid service, leadership and pro bono work, domestic work (including caregiving and housekeeping) and informal work (including favors). Pretty much anything that didn’t feel like play or leisure.

I was shocked.

Adding in caregiving, housework, volunteering, commuting, grooming etc. and it seemed like 80 percent of my life was “work.”

For some, sleep is the only time they’re not “working.”

No wonder I constantly felt depleted, my energy in frequent flux of high highs and low lows, and completely burning out every few months.

Why did everything feel like work – so effortful, instead of effortless? Or simply neutral?

I was drawing my energy from an empty well.

Like one researcher who studies Christmas Holiday Cards discovered and shared in an interview with Brigid Shulte for Overwhelmed,

“My God, people are competing about being busy. It’s about showing status. That if you’re busy, you’re important. You’re leading a full and worthy life.”

Taking a Break

“Without time to reflect, to live fully present in the moment and face what is transcendent about our lives, we are doomed to live in purposeless and banal busyness…It creates this ‘unquiet heart,’ as Saint Augustine said, that is ever desperate for fulfillment,” said another researcher in an interview with Shulte.

It was a few years ago when I was asked, “But, when do you rest?”

In a quick, instantaneous audit of my life, I could only think of one example.

Going away on retreats every few months.

Cherished times of being, of following the divine energy, of feeling full, of feeling whole.

I saw these times as an exception, not accessible in “real life,” on a weekly or a daily basis.

So deep in the belief that busyness was the way that I was being really useful.

I needed more time to reflect, to live fully present in the moment, to face what is transcendent about life.

I needed a break.

And on a regular basis.

As I started to peel away the worthy distractions and set aside time for not doing each week, it became more clear how I was called to be. How I have always been called.

But, had also come to most fear: creating, writing, designing, teaching.

Resting the Whole, Resting the Soul

“In the 1950s, some prominent thinkers predicted that the post-World War II boom in productivity and the ever-rising incomes and standards of living for Americans and the industrialized world could only mean that we were entering a new age of unprecedented leisure,” describes Shulte.

“All our basic needs would be met. Free from toil, we could begin to savor its fruits. True to the Greek ideal of the good life, we would spend our time cultivating the mind and the soul.”

It was just over a year ago on a Circle of Trust retreat facilitated by The Center for Courage & Renewal when I was asked, “What in your life needs a pause? A break? A rest?”

I had been giving my life a break each week, a whole day of stepping out of the busyness, for several years by then.

The question seemed familiar and yet a completely fresh perspective.

But, this question seemed bigger, broader.

Taking a day off per week away from routine and schedules had started giving time a break. And I had been taking a break from money for almost a year by then. And I had started to step back from commitments and focus my efforts.

So, what in my life needed a break?

My soul. My life force. My energy.

Not a break from being (not sure that’s possible), but a chance to simply be without all the resistance.

I am paying especially close attention to my energy. Devoted to being in the sweet spot.

There is still some resistance, and thus tensions, but now it’s to the rest of the world’s busyness, not my own.

Things are feeling more effortless, including doing my “work.” The other work is still work, though I have way less interest in it, so there’s a lot less of it and now feels more neutral.

Not a one time fix. Now, I commit to this intention everyday.

As Naomi Shihab Nye writes in her poem, Red Brocade, from 1952:

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

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