Featured Stories

The Total Incompatibility of Mindfulness and Busyness

Regardless of how centered and present you try to be, overloading your schedule is a way of being unfaithful to yourself

Jon Kabat-Zinn
Nov 28, 2018 · 5 min read
Credit: Anna_Isaeva/iStock/Getty Images Plus

“To commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of modern times.”

—Thomas Merton

“I’m keeping myself busy.” Lots of retired people say this kind of thing, probably to reassure themselves and others that they are not at loose ends and drifting into oblivion just because they aren’t going to work every day or receiving a paycheck.

One day I heard these words coming up from some deep crevice in my own mind, and before I could stop them, they went right into the telephone.

“Wait a minute,” I wanted to cry out. “What am I saying, and who the hell is saying this?” I am not keeping myself busy. If anything, I am attempting to keep myself unbusy and finding that to be something of a full-time job. I moved away from pathological levels of busyness and doing, only to discover that it is not so easy to demur to either the outer or inner occasions that seem so attractive, so necessary, so important, so reasonable, and so containable — each considered separately — and yet always wind up absorbing more energy than anticipated, making it difficult, if not impossible, to linger in the beauty of being in one place for months at a stretch and living with a sustainable balance between right inward and right outward measure.

Saying yes to more things than we can actually manage to be present for with integrity and ease of being is, in effect, saying no to all those things and people and places we have already said yes to.

When we set things up to make any real balance in our lives a virtual impossibility, we are evincing disloyalty to what we value most.

Why is that? Precisely because if we are overloaded to the point of being overwhelmed, it is likely that we will be so agitated, so distraught, so self-preoccupied that we won’t be able to meet anybody or any situation from a place of ease within the fullness of our own being in that moment, and that includes, most importantly, even an authentic meeting of ourselves and those we most care about. Perhaps we would do well to examine the impulses and seductions that drive us into such unfortunate circumstances.

Even if we tell ourselves that we are practicing mindfulness and embodying it as best we can from moment to moment, there are huge limitations and costs to disregarding or dismissing the possibility of a greater balance in the unfolding of things in our lives. When we set things up to make any real balance in our lives a virtual impossibility, we are evincing disloyalty to what we value most — which is literally what priorities are all about — and thus practicing, as poet and corporate adviser David Whyte so graphically and accurately articulates it, a kind of adultery, an infidelity. We may be betraying what is deepest and best in ourselves, and we may be betraying our relationships to others, even those we most love, and even our connectedness to places, to being at home where we are and fully in touch with what is most important and required in any moment. We might be losing touch, unknowingly, with our very relationship to the possibilities and the impossibilities of time.

Keeping such a radical view of our priorities in mind at key moments, it may be a lot easier to say no when our first impulse, and even our habit, is to say yes.

Whyte frames this dilemma elegantly for us in his book Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity:

No matter what New Age gurus may say, we do not make our own reality. We have a modest part in it, depending on how alive we are to the way the currents and eddies of time are running. Reality is the conversation between ourselves and the never-ending productions of time. The closer we are to the source of the productions of time — that is, to the eternal — the more easily we understand the particular currents we must navigate on any given day. The river of time can suddenly turn, for instance, from a happy, easy flow to turmoil when, in the midst of everything, the boss asks us if we will take on a particular project that we know we cannot do with any sanity given all our present commitments; bereft of spaciousness, we say yes, trying to establish our identity through doing, afraid of the silence that might open in the presence of this figure of authority. Hounded by time, we feel hounded by others, but open to the spaciousness and silence, we can actually become fascinated by the silence that ensues from a pleasant but firm refusal. From the outside, our refusal looks like courage, but on the inside, it is simply representative of a healthy relationship with time. With regard to our marriage with time, to say yes would be the equivalent of promiscuity, of faithlessness and betrayal. Stress means we have committed adultery with regard to our marriage with time. If we want to understand the particulars of our reality, we must understand the way we conduct our daily relationship with the hours. In the hours is the secret to the workday, and in every workday the manner of our marriage to the hours and subsequently, our journey through the day, is crucial to the happiness we desire.

One challenge of living mindfully is to be in touch with the natural rhythms of our own life unfolding, even if at times we feel far from them or if we have lost touch with them altogether and find we have to listen afresh for those inner cadences and callings with great tenderness and respect.

Our imagination about what may or may not happen in some other moment may go wild at times, out of desire or fear. In fact, that is bound to happen. But these intoxications and the anguish they bring with them can be counterbalanced and held in perspective by a wisdom that is slowly growing within us, a wisdom that emerges out of our fidelity to our own practice of mindfulness and to its embodiment in how we meet our moments and opportunities, writ large or small. It depends on keeping what is most important in mind and recognizing our addiction to doing and thus, perhaps, to infidelity, or the fiction that we can balance it all, when the facts may be telling us that the costs are outweighing the benefits. It depends on remembering who we actually are and keeping in mind, whatever we are engaged in doing or fantasize about missing out on — all of which is colored and distorted by our mindless perceptions and projections, mere fabrications of the mind — that whatever these preoccupations are, they pale in comparison to this moment that is.

From The Healing Power of Mindfulness: A New Way of Being, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2018 by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is professor of medicine emeritus and the founder of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction).

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade