Against Productivity

I’m going to start this one by qualifying myself to you, dear reader, as a “self help expert”. Since I write this stuff every week, I have had no choice but to do some research over the past ten years. I’ve read a lot of self-help literature, from obscure esoteric occultism to super-popular motivational seminar speaker books. I tend to stick with Zen because most self-help lit is really bad. It completely misses the point.

This is because the greatest self-help writers aren’t self-help writers at all; they’re spiritual writers. They are mystics of a sort. They provide sound spiritual provocations because they have no agenda. As soon as an agenda enters into the picture, the message becomes useless. These writers are not here to sell books or get your attention. They’re here to spread a message of mindfulness. They’re not here for results; that’s the whole damn point. Some of the genuine teachers get rich and famous by accident, like Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti. They deserve it. And they probably don’t care very much, because they are enlightened men (they won’t tell you that, though).

This puts them in stark contrast with those who spend their lives marketing the cult of productivity. This strange phenomenon has merged as a popular and easily-consumable fusion of Eastern spirituality and Western capitalism. Modernity replaced God with the dollar; we often criticize religion for being the source of the world’s conflict, but is the dollar any less ruthless than God? Is worshipping materialism and technology any less delusional than worshipping mythical cherubs and demons? The cult of productivity seeks to reduce all of life’s purpose to productive consciousness, to convert the precious time of existence into monetary and social value. It asks, “Are you busy enough?” If you are, you should be more efficient and focused about your work. If not, you should get busy.

When we lose ourselves in our work, we often feel better, but only momentarily. Work is the drug of choice for most modern urbanites, precisely because it distracts them from the dismal and unnatural conditions of their modern cities. Many people work their lives away and acquire all the riches and fame they want and then end up looking back with regret. They were only pretending to be immersed in the present moment; if they were truly mindful, they would have balanced their productive moments with calm and simple ‘pointless’ ones. If we are satisfied with what we have, there is no need to waste life away striving for more, more, more.

When we work with self-discipline and diligence, life and work become one and we can earn an honest livelihood while not missing out on life. Maybe down the road we get lucky and ‘hit it big’, but who cares? Similarly, when we approach productivity with a healthy mind we don’t feel the need to use work to fill the void within. Obsessing over productivity is no less delusional than obsessing over sex, drugs, food, working out, etc. It is a distraction, a narcotic. Whenever we use things as narcotics, we lose touch with reality and have to turn within for longer in order to recover our sense of self.

The essence of Zen is to act single-mindedly, without pointed purpose, care or objective. It is simply to be fully alive in each moment, thirsting for nothing. It is not hedonism, nor is it asceticism. It is the art of just being. Meditation trains us in this practice of being. Productivity is all about becoming; it is about progressing towards a future goal. All goals are mirages, no matter how painful it is to admit this to ourselves. Our aversion to the truth doesn’t make it any less true. Most of our productive efforts are entirely unnecessary, and life would be better if people learned to be satisfied with themselves without having to constantly accelerate their work and efficiency. The waste that is produced by greed, obsession and distraction is building up and will cause massive trouble, as it always has throughout human history.

You may be asking, “Why is this bad?” Pretending that productive consciousness is the pinnacle of human experience essentially reduces us to objecthood. Materialism is only one small part of universal life. Material and productive consciousness are not the sole catalysts of human activity, nor are they the most important facets of our growth and evolution. Pure materialism ignores the entire spiritual element of human life, the element that allows us to transcend the material world and live with deep awareness, content with nature and a simple life. It of course makes sense that people who have never nurtured this natural spirituality believe that material productivity is the apex of spiritual consciousness! This is sad.

The belief that life is all about productivity is a misguided attempt to fuel fake progress, produce more material value, and keep people in the cycle of production and consumption. This cycle, in the modern era, is one of the best symbolic expressions of the Buddhist idea of Samsara that we have. It is a trap in which we exchange our time for goods that do not satisfy us. We cannot escape until we decide to cultivate spiritual awareness instead of constant productivity.

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