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Busyness Plan

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I’ve dropped in on a yoga class with a popular teacher in Los Angeles. The room is full of slim blond yoginis moving like synchronized swimmers through a vinyasa series. Fifteen minutes into the sequence, the teacher calls the class together to demonstrate some alignment details. Half the women in the room move forward. The rest turn on their cell phones and begin checking their messages.

Those women could have been doctors on call, or moms with young kids at home. But I suspect that they are victims, like so many people, of the internal busyness syndrome—the breathless, stress-addicted feeling of having way too much to do and way too little time to do it. Internal busyness, a complex of internally generated thoughts, beliefs, and bodily responses, can certainly be triggered by an especially busy day or a lot of competing demands. But unlike external busyness, which is the more straightforward state of simply having a lot to do, internal busyness doesn’t go away when tasks are done. External busyness—the pressure that comes from juggling a job, children, and all the tasks of running your life—can be managed. It can even be a yogic pathway, if you know how to practice with it. Internal busyness, however, manages you.

So when people tell me, “I’m so busy I can’t find time to practice,” I always ask them which kind of busyness they’re distressed by: external or internal. One clue that you might be suffering from the internal busyness syndrome is this: When you don’t have an immediate task at hand, when you have a moment that could be devoted to a few Ujjayi breaths or just spacing out, do you find yourself still spinning internally, wondering what you’ve forgotten to do? That’s internal busyness.

The paradox of busyness is a bit like the paradox of stress. On the one hand, human beings are built to be busy. We’re hard-wired for action—when it comes to our minds, muscles, or life skills, it’s use them or lose them. To live is to act, as Krishna reminds his disciple Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. And there’s a lot of bliss in using our skills. Given the choice, most people would opt for a full life, even at the cost of having too much to do. Happiness, so elusive when we’re pursuing it, has a way of sneaking up when we’re fully absorbed in something—even if it’s just washing the dishes.

Getting Caught Up

But there’s also a dark, compulsive side of busyness. You feel overwhelmed, driven by your schedule, afraid of what will happen if you let something go. You run on caffeine and adrenaline, get impatient with your kids and then feel guilty, dread running into friends because you’ll have to stop and talk to them. Being in a hurry can make you so task-focused that you ignore others’ needs as well as your own. In the famous Princeton Theological Seminary Good Samaritan study, nearly all the students observed walked right past a man who was apparently having a heart attack on the sidewalk. When interviewed later, most of those who didn’t stop said that they were in a hurry to get to a class.

That study offered an important clue about internal busyness. It’s rooted in an attitude about time. When the pace of work is intensified, as it is in modern industrial and postindustrial societies, time is seen as a finite, ever-dwindling commodity. Because time seems scarce, people try to squeeze the maximum amount of productivity out of every minute. They tend to spend less time on things like meditation, contemplation, and singing—activities that can’t be made to increase their “yield” on the time invested in them. Even we yogis, who supposedly have our eyes on the inner depths of life, often find ourselves living by the basic capitalist assumption that what we do needs to yield a quantifiable result.

How many of us got more interested in meditation when we read about the University of Wisconsin MRI studies that showed that people who meditate can increase activity in the “happiness” section of the brain? We expect our practice to give us something measurable, give us more career leverage, or at least rejuvenate us so that we can go out and work more. Our spiritual practice becomes valued for its usefulness in our external lives, rather than as the source of peace and well-being that it was intended to be. This assumption—that if we’re going to spend time on something, it needs to produce a measurable yield—is one root of internal busyness.

One powerful way to work with a tendency toward internal busyness is to periodically pause for two to three minutes during the day. While you’re at your desk or doing the laundry, play with a yogic practice like the ones described on these pages. The idea is to do it for its own sake, without expecting results.

Anti-Rushing Practice

This practice releases the compulsion that often arises when you’re in a hurry. Try it now, and then practice it the next time you feel yourself rushing.

Stop. Stand or sit totally still for one full minute. First, say to yourself, “I have all the time in the world.” Then, bring to mind the image of a buddha in meditation. Hold the thought of the image in your mind while you breathe deeply and slowly five times. Keep that image in your mind as you continue on your way.

Busyness as an Addiction

My friend Glenn is like one of the eight-armed Hindu goddesses: a brilliant multi-tasker. She can do five or six things more or less simultaneously: run a meeting, make her kid’s dentist appointment, talk to a friend on the phone. For years, she claimed that she did it all in a state of flow—that peak action state in which everything seems to be happening on its own as you move effortlessly from one activity to another. At one point, though, she realized that she had become addicted to the multitasking high.

Activity addiction is like any other addiction: As it progresses, you need more and more hits to get the original glow. So you add one more item to your schedule, then another. People ask you to join a committee, and you can’t resist. You hear about a conference or a project, and angle to get involved. You add clients or classes. You speed date, go to two or three parties each weekend, sign your kid up for after-school activities six days a week. Pretty soon, you’re emailing while you’re talking on the phone, reading while you’re eating or doing asana practice, and helping your child with her homework while watching the news and feeding the dog.

On a fundamental level, being busy nourishes the ego’s need to feel important. But while it’s normal to derive a healthy self-esteem from being engaged with the world, the ego’s addiction to busyness has at its core a terror of its own emptiness. The ego feels, “If I’m busy, that means I exist. I’m worthwhile. I’m wanted.” When you’re active and engaged, you feel part of the rhythm of life. Our culture reinforces the assumption that being busy equals being productive and important.

Practice: Finding the Nonverbal “I Am”

Stop. Close your eyes. Ask yourself, “When I’m not busy, not productive, who am I? When I’m not thinking, not moving around, not emotionally engaged, who am I?” Instead of looking for a verbal answer, tune in to the space that opens up right after the question.

Getting off the Wheel

A few months ago, Glenn realized that she was exhausted and needed to make some changes in her life. She arranged to take a week of her vacation time, when her daughter was with her ex-husband, for contemplation. The first day or so, the phone rang constantly. Then it stopped ringing. At first, Glenn found the silence scary. Did it mean that she’d stopped existing in her world of busy people? She realized that, away from her job, she felt meaningless, as if her existence had no value when she wasn’t doing important, helpful work.

Over the following days, Glenn surrendered to being present with what she was experiencing. She let herself inhabit her fear of being left out—and the deeper fear of nonexistence that seemed to lie behind it. As she did, she moved past those fears into a real peace. “I began to feel the part of myself that is deeper than fear of being alone, deeper than the fear of not being enough, deeper than sadness or boredom,” she said.

At the end of the week, once back in her “normal” over-scheduled life, Glenn faced the problem of how to keep from going back to her old habit of filling every minute. The obvious first step was to do less. This is not always easy, especially for those with young kids or a demanding job. But Glenn discovered that if she turned down nonessential “extras,” —like chairing a committee or giving a talk, she had more time to focus on the essentials. It also meant that she could have real conversations with co-workers, do a round or two of Pranayama in between appointments, and even meditate for a few minutes before lunch.

Dealing with external busyness nearly always demands practical solutions—delegating or letting go of certain activities, maybe even observing a weekly Sabbath, a real day of rest and inner contemplation. But internal busyness is the domain of yoga. To truly address internal busyness, you need two types of yoga.

First, you need inner practices that take you to your center. Even if you aren’t ready to commit to a daily meditation practice, you can get into the habit of stopping several times a day to center yourself through some form of inner focus, such as the micro-practices found on these pages. Micro-practices create small refuge spaces in your day. Over time, the sense of spaciousness you find in these moments will expand until you can access it at will.

The second type of yoga is more demanding, because it asks that you cultivate attitudes that allow you to act with yogic awareness in everything you do. Your actions become yoga when you act with inner focus. Otherwise, you might be doing wonderful things in the world—making art, practicing poverty law, or working for the environment—but you’ll still feel overwhelmed and burned out.

There’s an old Zen story about two monks who run into each other outside their temple. One of them is sweeping the temple steps. The second monk scolds the first for sweeping instead of meditating, saying, “You’re too busy!” The sweeping monk answers, “You should know that there is one inside me who is not busy!”

The “one who is not busy” is our own pure Being, the unchanging presence within us that effortlessly connects us with the heart of the universe and imbues us with the simple feeling of basic all-rightness. That monk was able to act in time and space from a state of stillness and timelessness, because even in action, he never lost contact with pure Being. Internal busyness comes from the feeling of not having enough time. When you act with inner focus, it shifts you out of your time bind by anchoring you in the place where time is always enough.

Between Past and Future

You might have experienced a moment when your relationship to time shifted. Maybe you were truly engrossed in a task. Maybe you hit the “bingo” spot in an asana and found yourself in pure, effortless presence. One minute, you’re in normal clock time, maybe wishing the clock would move faster. The next, time slows, and you’re in the gap between past and future. In that gap, the timeless eternal present arises. There is no time pressure, because there is no time. When you enter that zone, you have all the time you need to complete your tasks.

Years ago, when I first started to give public talks, I found myself late to a program. I began to rush. I could feel anxiety coursing through my body. Suddenly, from some grace-filled inner realm, the thought arose: “What do you think you’re doing?” I tried to push it down and keep rushing, but it came up again. Then I saw the irony, the contradiction. I was going to give a spiritual discourse, and yet my hurry was taking me out of contact with spirit! I stopped for a moment and practiced Stress Management 101, taking slow, deep breaths until I felt some of the anxiety drain out of my shoulders and neck.

When I continued on my way, I noticed I was feeling different. Whether it was the breathing or the intention to stop rushing, something had moved me out of the zone of busyness and into an internal quiet. Still focusing on the breath, I arrived at the program site five minutes late, but so present that I was able to flow right into my talk, with no bumps, no nervousness. That moment was a kind of turning point for me. For a friend whose work demanded that he spend hours every day in punishing traffic, the turning point was a decision to keep his attention in the heart while he was driving. For both of us, the shift came with a decision to focus inward at a moment of stress and to allow the “gap,” the place of stillness where time slows down, to show its face.

The one who is not busy lives in the space between every breath, in the space between each thought. In the space between the end of one action and the beginning of the next, we can merge into the source of all action: the still point between the turning worlds. Known in Sanskrit as the madly, the “center point” or the “gap,” this doorway into spaciousness arises in every moment. We just don’t normally notice it. “Human beings experience thousands of fleeting samadhis every day,” says a sage in the ancient text Tripura Rahasya. “But we pass them by, rushing forward to the next moment.”

Meditation is the way we train ourselves to notice. (It’s not an accident that when Krishna began teaching Arjuna the methodology of the yoga of action, he started with meditation.) When we meditate, we practice finding the still point and lingering in it. Once we’ve learned to inhabit it with our eyes closed, we can begin to recognize the gap when it shows up in the midst of activity.

That kind of meditation—meditation on the fly, as it were—is often said to be more valuable than sitting meditation. But you can’t meditate on the fly until you’ve had some practice in sitting meditation. A regular sitting meditation practice trains you to identify the felt sense of quiet mind, and then you have a better chance of finding the quiet in the midst of activity. After years of tuning in to the one who is not busy, I’ve learned to step into those still moments instead of overriding them. When I stop to savor that stillness, my subsequent actions flow from that quiet place and have a power that my ordinary mind can’t come near.

Practice: Finding the Still Point

Right now, begin to sway slowly from side to side, inhaling to one side, exhaling to the other. At the end of each movement, notice the pause. Tune in to the pause on the right side, then on the left. Focus on the pause for a few seconds, then let the movement flow from that. Do this for two minutes.

Stillness in Action

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna defines yoga as “skill in action.” At first, that might seem to simply mean being good at what you do. But the true skill in action is a natural fluidity that arises when you can act from the perspective of the one who is not busy. The one who is not busy is free in all her actions because she knows that she is untouched by the action and its results. She’s the witness of action. When action is happening, she can sit back and allow it to take place. Yet, paradoxically, she is able to fully engross herself in a task, precisely because she is free from fear or anticipation about the outcome.

Turning your daily actions into yoga becomes a dance between doing your absolute best and surrendering the outcome. You can’t surrender the outcome before you’ve made your effort, any more than you can win the lottery without buying a ticket. But as you make your effort, as you go about your daily tasks, the yoga lies in your intention to keep turning to the one who is not busy and to feel her steadiness, her detachment, and her freedom. You won’t always see her immediately, but once you’re committed to looking through activity to stillness, the one who is not busy starts to find you. Tuning in to the one who is not busy makes your effort, well, effortless. That’s when action truly does become yoga, and you become like an eight-armed action deity, effortlessly multitasking with no sense of being busy at all.

Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yogic philosophy.