“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
In the United States, the Puritan (or Protestant) Work Ethic is alive and well, some might say run amok. Protestants were originally attracted to the qualities of hard work and frugality, as well as social success and wealth, because these were thought to be two important consequences of being one of those elected or predestined to be saved; thus, Protestants were supposed to strive for reaching them. This mindset became wide spread; the Protestant work ethic is often credited with helping to define the societies of Northern Europe and other countries where Protestantism was common, including here, in the United States. For example, Proverbs 10:4 of the Holman Christian Standard Bible states, “Idle hands make one poor, but diligent hands bring riches.” Likewise, there are several German proverbs that echo this sentiment, such as: “The devil makes work for idle hands.” Thus, in the United States, it is common for people to feel we are not worthy if we are unable to account for our time with measurable results.
Making a case for downtime
Winnie the Pooh has quite a bit of wisdom to share with children and adults alike. In regard to keeping busy, Pooh makes the assertion, “Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” (from Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, inspired by A.A. Milne) We can also review the Old Testament (Gen. 2:2) as a reminder, lest we forget, that God rested on the seventh day of creation. In fact, Conservative and Orthodox Jews still observe the Sabbath by resting from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It was only a few decades ago, if any of you were around then to remember, that stores were not open on Sundays to support a day of repose and being with family. Taking such a break can be a reminder that we are not indispensable. Moreover, it can validate for us that the earth will not stop rotating if we take a break from meeting the demands that face us. These demands can be met “all in good time.”
The reality is that not taking enough downtime has detrimental effects:
- We may become more stupid.
Constant activity keeps our bodies in a state of heightened stress arousal. In this state, our fight or flight reactivity, our ancient reptilian brain, is dominating our thoughts and behaviors. Thus we have less access to the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain unique to human beings, where our executive functioning (rational thought, judgment and creativity) reside. Taking opportunities to bring ourselves out of stress arousal into greater balance allows us to utilize the intelligence that sets us apart as humans.
- There are mental health risks to not taking enough vacation from work.
A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (2013, August 2) concluded that employees who work long hours with high job demands are more likely to develop depression. And a 2005 study by the by the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin found that women who took vacations were less likely to suffer from depression than their counterparts who did not. Ultimately, burn-out and resentment can build when we don’t feel rewarded for overextending our energy, going beyond our limitations.
- Productivity and job retention may suffer.
The constant pressure to do more with less, coupled with the belief that being busy means we’re important, is creating an unsustainable pattern. It is worth questioning an unconscious belief that working more makes us more productive. As a case in point, when entrepreneur Henry Ford decreased the workweek of his employees from 48 to 40 hours per week, he found that their productivity actually increased. Likewise, An internal study done by major accounting firm Ernst & Young in 2006 found vacation time was actually correlated with stronger performance. It concluded that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their performance reviews from supervisors were 8 percent higher the following year. The study also found that employees who took vacation time were less likely to leave than their presumably burnt-out counterparts. In my own study of business people who meditate, one of the themes that arose from those who maintained long-term meditation practice was a sense that they were more productive at work, not less, and without adding more time on the job.
- Health may suffer.
There is greater understanding that working too much is simply not healthy. Luckily, when we take time away, these effects are mitigated. For example, the Framingham Heart study (a massive longitudinal research program started in 1948) reported that when workers take annual vacations, their risk for a heart attack is reduced by 30% in men and 50% in women.
Thus, there is no need to feel guilty for taking time off of “doing.” For many people, staying busy has become a way of avoiding what you are feeling, especially discomfort or pain (physical or emotional). On the other hand, non-doing gives you an opportunity to meet what is there without judgment and address it more effectively. From this state, you are better able to utilize the executive functioning of your brain (the rational thought, creativity and judgment) and can tap into the inner wisdom that is inaccessible when you are constantly stimulated. As Joseph Campbell stated, “You must have a place to which you can go in your heart, your mind, or your house, almost every day, where you do not owe anyone and where no one owes you – a place that simply allows for the blossoming of something new and promising.” Moreover, taking time out is an act of self-care rather than selfishness. When you are renewed and feeling more balanced, you are in a better state to respond effectively to the demands in your life.
How to take time to do nothing
Follow Rumi’s advice, “A little while alone in your room will prove more valuable than anything else that could ever be given you.”
- Schedule time for yourself in your calendar on a regular basis and keep the appointment with yourself.
- Take time when arriving somewhere to sit quietly before initiating your activity.
- Take a few minutes between completing tasks as transition time.
- Set up a Sabbath-like period in which you do not engage in “work” activity.
- Set boundaries on TV time, computer time (periodically turn off your phone and email).
What are ways that you carve out time for non-doing? Please share your ideas with so I can enlighten others.
“You do not need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen, simply wait.
Do not even wait, be quiet, still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked,
it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
~ Franz Kafka
“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”
Given the pace of the 21st Century world in which we live, too often, when people experience challenges in life, they seek a quick fix. Yet, rarely, if ever, do quick fixes actually resolve our problems. At best, they keep us stuck; sometimes they create more problems for us. In the end, Aesop’s fable usually holds true in this regard: “Slow but steady wins the race.”
Mindfulness practice is similar to exercise and nutrition in the sense that each necessitate that we make ongoing lifestyle changes to truly benefit from them; none of them work if done only temporarily; none of them are quick fixes. For example, to date, there haven’t been any “fad” diets that have been successful over the long term. Moreover, science has not arrived at any medication that provides as much preventive or restorative benefits as exercise, nutrition for the most common diseases humans endure, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes—not to mention that disease care interventions, as opposed to health care approaches, often come along with unwanted side effects. Likewise, mindfulness practice offers a way for people to take an active role in reducing their physical and emotional suffering, improving their well-being. For those benefits to manifest, however, mindfulness requires patience and persistence, and, ultimately, cultivating a new way of being.
If you would like to have a positive impact on your well-being by developing mindfulness practice, here are five suggestions to help you be successful:
1. Actively Practice
Reading about mindfulness is not sufficient, if you want to experience the benefits; practice is necessary. The intellectual context and instructions that books offer may enrich your understanding of mindfulness, yet it is the actual engagement in the practice that ultimately is essential to derive the greatest value. Mindfulness is an active, not passive process. And, developing a mindfulness practice on your own can be difficult. Instead of learning the practice in isolation, you may want to begin by taking a class, or finding a mindfulness sitting group in your area so that you receive support of others who share similar intentions.
2. Practice on a Regular Basis
Consistency of your practice is essential, and, perhaps, more important than how long you practice during each session. For example, you may find it more impactful to practice 20 minutes each day than to practice 45 minutes once each week. Establishing a regular habit of practicing mindfulness is what works best over the long term, while sporadic practice is hard to maintain and rarely gives rise to the potentials that the practice offers.
3. Beware of Ambition
If you become preoccupied about “seeing” results from your practice, you are likely to become discouraged in your efforts. The benefits of mindfulness develop slowly, and often subtly; you may not even notice the changes taking place along the way. Consequently, focusing on potential outcome(s) can sabotage the integrity of your practice. Therefore, it helps to suspend expectations of the practice you might be holding onto.
4. Keep Practicing Mindfulness in a Formal Manner
The ability to extend mindful awareness into the midst of your daily life, while you are working, driving, eating, communicating, recreating, engaged in routine activities, etc., is a valuable skill which is often referred to as “informal mindfulness.” And, this is one of the potential outcomes of practicing mindfulness on a regular basis. However, if you stop practicing mindfulness in a formal manner—in an environment where you minimize distractions for a certain period of time so that you can be with your experience—your informal mindfulness will likely wane.
5. Maintain Your Commitment
Keep on practicing. If your practice falters, find a way to renew it. Sometimes this is difficult to do on your own; seek support if necessary. Finding a mindfulness sitting group where you can practice with others on a regular basis, or attending a retreat for more in-depth practice can be ways to sustain your personal practice.
Mindfulness is a life-time journey, not a sprint. Nevertheless, the ongoing effort that it requires is well worth your commitment! As Beverly Sills pointed out, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”
“Life is too precious, too important, too short for quick fixes that in the end fix nothing and from which we learn nothing except that we have wasted our time trying to find happiness in short cuts. The only way to real fulfilment is to look inside see what is there, then look outside and see what difference we can make with what we have to offer – whether we knew we had it in us, or whether it was something we grew within us over the coldest, most seemingly dormant, or darkest times, in order to reap the richest harvest of all.”
~ Jacquelene Close Moore
“A stumble may prevent a fall.”
It isn’t uncommon to beat yourself up when you catch yourself in a mindless state. In that moment of realization, the automatic voice of your inner critic enters telling you why you need to kick yourself for your behavior or thoughts, not unlike the ad in which the person hits herself on the forehead when she realizes “I could have had a V8!” Most often the event is something simple and not too harmful; for example, a friend of mine recently told me that he had left some farm-fresh, organic vegetables in the car by mistake and by the time he remembered, hours later, they were no longer edible. There are other times when the outcome is more costly or takes greater wear and tear on you.
Especially when you are new to the practice of mindfulness, you are vulnerable to judging yourself for these gaps in awareness; after all, it is violating the premise of mindfulness to not be present. This self-punishment, however, does not serve you; it is a form of optional suffering that doesn’t add value to your experience and can be counter-productive. Berating yourself does nothing to minimize the chances you will get caught in that same mindless reaction again in the future.
What if, as an alternative, you find the opportunity concealed in these mindless moments? With awareness, these mindless states can actually transform into opportunities for insight. Insight occurs when instead of feeding your inner critic through self-judgment, you notice what hooked you or pulled you away from being present, and see it more clearly. Over time, you may recognize that acknowledging the preoccupations which ensnare your attention is an instrumental part of your path toward greater mindfulness. Those precious moments of awareness are what afford you choice to respond effectively as opposed to the automatic reactions in which you’ve been unconsciously engaged.
So next time you catch yourself in a state of mindless reactivity, before you berate yourself, instead, congratulate yourself for noticing. Relish that crucial moment of awareness and welcome any insight you may bring to light. Overtime, as you continue to practice mindfulness in this manner, it is as if you are gradually uncovering the pearls hidden inside your oysters!
Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost … I am helpless… It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it.I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in the same place. But, it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in … it’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are of little importance compared to what lies within us.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Most of us are familiar with fictional tale “The Wizard of Oz.” In this story, a twister picked up Dorothy’s Kansas house, with her inside, and carried it to the Land of Oz. Dorothy’s mission throughout the remainder of the adventure was to return home. The residents of Oz suggested that she follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City in order to find the Wizard, who supposedly would help her return.
Along the way she met companions: the Scarecrow, who was convinced his life would be better if he only had a brain; the Tin Man, who desired a heart; and the Lion, who believed he was deficient of courage. Each of these characters thought that he was lacking something and put his faith in the legendary Wizard to give him what was missing. However, when they finally reach the Emerald City, their expectations were shattered to find an unsympathetic Wizard. Nevertheless, as they continued the journey, each one illustrated the quality he felt was most absent: the Scarecrow demonstrated wisdom, the Tin Man embodied tenderness, and the Lion behaved bravely. In each case, they revealed that they had those inherent virtues the whole time, but they just weren’t adept at accessing them in the beginning. The Wizard, who turned out to be a charlatan, could only present the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion with outward symbols in recognition of their qualities: a diploma, a medal, and a testimonial, respectively. The Wizard wasn’t able to give them anything they didn’t already possess.
And, what about Dorothy; she still hadn’t found a way home to Kansas? When the Wizard’s hot air balloon finally sailed away from Oz without her, Dorothy believed her last option for returning was lost. Yet, auspiciously, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, appeared once again. Glinda informed Dorothy that she didn’t need to be helped any longer. In fact, Dorothy always had the power to go back to Kansas, but she had to learn it for herself.
Mindfulness practice often follows much the same journey. When first arriving at this practice, many of us have been seeking solace, fulfillment, and security from sources outside of ourselves; to provide what we believe to be lacking or to fill perceived holes in our lives. Yet, we have not found satisfaction in those attempts. In contrast, as we cultivate mindfulness skills, we find a greater ability to bring our attention to our own experience, rather than searching externally. In doing so, we essentially develop the capacity to come into closer contact with our intrinsic nature, to find our way home. Reconnecting with our inner wisdom, heart, and courage is possible. Buddha is commonly quoted as having said, “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” We realize we always have had this power. We just needed to learn how to access it. And, essentially, the way we do this is by bringing our awareness into the present moment, rather than unconsciously becoming engaged in distractions, either outside of ourselves or in our own mind. Bringing your attention to the present moment is the equivalent of Dorothy clicking her heals together and saying, “There’s no place like home.”
“it is here
in the breath
it is here
in the stillness between breaths
it is here
in the active mind
it is here
in the resting mind
it is here
in the dream’s panorama
it is here
in each moment of awakening
it is here
when all is well
it is here
when fear has nothing left to fear
there is pure noticing
there is no need for doing
no frantic searching
can find the obvious
no seeking needed
to find that which seeks
it is here
where it can never be lost
“We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.”
– John Newton
I’ll begin by sharing with you an often told anecdote. A lecturer, when explaining the impacts of stress to an audience, raised a glass of water and asked, “How heavy is this glass of water?” Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz. The lecturer replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long you try to hold it. If you hold it for a minute, that’s not a problem. If you hold it for an hour, your arm will ache. If you hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance. In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer you hold it, the heavier it becomes.” She continued, “And that’s the way it is with stress. If we carry our burdens all the time, no matter how minor they seem, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, it becomes an obstacle for us.”
Likewise, each of us is vulnerable to preoccupations, from the moment we arise in the morning until we fall asleep at night. Knowingly or unknowingly, we accumulate these concerns and carry them around with us, picking up more and more without freeing ourselves of the previous ones. As we do so, they become a greater and greater burden. You may be surprised at how much weight you are hauling day to day. And that energy can be better employed for things that really matter right now.
Fortunately, mindfulness provides an opportunity for you to lighten your load, to free yourself of these burdens. By asking yourself to be aware of your experience in the here and now, to be fully in the present moment, you can release the energy you are expending on preoccupations that have been consuming your attention. Additionally, as you do this, you can become more familiar with the nature of the concerns that pull your attention and gain insight into those patterns. Recognizing these patterns enables you to allow the preoccupations to arise and pass, without grabbing hold of them, thus freeing you from their encumbrance.
In the midst of a recent group mindfulness practice, one of the participants, Donald, described an experience of his burdens easing in this manner: “And then, between one mindful footstep and another, I realized that I was free. In the moment, I had escaped the weight of the world. The bills, the projects, the politics… None of that was with me in the now. Nor are they now. I am aware of them, patiently waiting their turn. But I’m no longer carrying them, in the now.”
To help facilitate this process, each time I lead an all-day retreat, as part of an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, I offer students the opportunity to lighten their load when the retreat begins. As we check in, I encourage students to hand over to me, for safe keeping during the day, any preoccupations they are carrying with them. To be clear, these are not burdens I add to my own plate, instead, I place them into a virtual, infinite storage space where they can be housed. Students hand over things such as concerns about a work project, a child’s soccer game that is being missed, anxieties about health, errands that need to be run, and a variety of other tasks on “to do” lists. This process assists students by freeing up their attention so that they are more able to bring their awareness fully into the present moment throughout the day. At the end of the retreat, students have the option to collect items they had entrusted to me, or keep them in the storage area more permanently. There are very few people who end up taking back items from the storage area; only things that still require attention are retrieved.
You can do this for yourself. First, recognize what you are carrying around with you – really stop and pay attention as you consider this. Then, before you go any further, out of kindness for yourself, put down anything that may be a burden to you right now. (There is plenty of room in the virtual storage space for your burdens to be housed, so go ahead put them there.) Start even for a moment, and if you can, refrain from picking them back up again. (You may leave them in the storage area permanently.) Repeat this process on a regular basis to continue to lighten your load.
“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”
– Lou Holtz
“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
– Mohandas K. Gandhi
In over fifteen years of supporting people who are experiencing the effects of stress in their lives, one thing hasn’t changed: people generally feel overwhelmed by the demands they are facing and by their attempts to keep up with them; they are busy— too busy. This is true whether individuals are students, in professional careers, non-professional workers, unemployed job seekers or retired. Commonly, newly retired people attend my classes having expected retirement to bring them relief from the busyness of their employed life, only to find a that they are caught up in different kinds of demands, but still don’t feel like they have enough time.
The question becomes, is all of this busyness, with the wear and tear it is taking in our lives, really taking us somewhere worthwhile? Or instead, are most of us merely caught, knowingly or unknowingly, on the hamster wheel of life, running faster and faster without a meaningful payoff?
Tim Kreider, in a recent essay he wrote entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap1,” spoke to this trend of being too busy: “Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.” “The present hysteria,” according to Kreider,” is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.” Kreider asserted that in our current culture, busyness is often “a boast disguised as a complaint.” “It makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon.” And this complaint is coming from those who are “busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” Furthermore, he maintained that “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” He said, “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.” On the other hand, Kreider advocated the value of inactivity: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.” He concluded by stating, “Life is too short to be busy.”
If you are not convinced of Kreider’s argument in support of slowing down your busyness, you might be interested to read the top five regrets of the dying2, as compiled by Bonnie Ware, a nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. The regrets of the dying recorded by Ware support the conviction made by Paul Tsongis, “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’”:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Ware comments about regret number five are particularly significant: “This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.” Too often, people do not see the cost of remaining caught up in their busyness until they no longer have the choice to make changes.
This does not have to be your fate, however. I was fortunate to have my eyes opened to the dangers of getting caught in what Kreider referred to as “The ‘Busy’ Trap” many years ago when I took a time management class. Most of that day-long class was spent identifying very detailed goals for the next month, three months, six months, one year, three years, five years, ten years, and on through the next 100 years of our lives. It was a taxing and exhausting process. Toward the end of the day, we were told to write the goals for two more periods: the last six months and final one week of our lives. We were then asked to review the goals for the next 100 years of our lives to see if we incorporated the goals that we identified for the last six months and final week of our lives. Many people in the class, including me, realized that the goals for our final days did not show up in the goals we set for the next 100 years of our lives. The point was clearly made in this experiential process: if the goals for the last six months and week of our life tend to reveal those aspects that are most meaningful to us, why, then, do we go through life on a daily basis without incorporating them into our life! Pablo Neruda answered this question most eloquently in his poem, “Keeping Quiet” when he said, “If we weren’t unanimous about keeping our lives so much in motion, if we could do nothing for once, perhaps a great silence would interrupt this sadness, this never understanding ourselves and threatening ourselves with death.”
Accordingly, I offer you the invitation to slow down periodically with the intention of recognizing what is most meaningful to you in your life. Ask yourself, if you knew that you only had six months to live, how would you employ that time? And if you only had one week to live how would you choose to spend that week? Then see how you can consciously integrate and prioritize those features into your day-to-day existence. Continue taking baby steps in this direction and you will find that you have the capability to step off of the hamster wheel!
“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.”
– Lily Tomlin
“Sometimes it seems your ever-increasing list of things to do can leave you feeling totally undone.”
– Susan Mitchell and Catherine Christie, I’d Kill for a Cookie
Stress is a fact of life. No one is totally free of it, as long as you are alive. The negative effects of stress can take a serious toll on the quality of your life. And you may be one of those persons who have been feeling more stress lately.
If so, join the club. In research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology1 on April 12, 2012 psychological stress was assessed in 3 national surveys administered in 1983, 2006, and 2009 using the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). The results of this study show an increase in stress over time in almost every demographic category from 1983 to 2009, ranging from 10%-30%. Stress increased 18% for women and 24% for men during this period. Stress increased little in response to the 2008-2009 economic downturn except among White, middle-aged, college-educated men with full-time jobs. This group’s increase was almost double that of any other demographic group.
Overall, throughout the years of the study period, women reported having higher stress levels as compared to men; findings show that stress increases with decreasing age, education and income; and unemployed persons reported higher levels of stress, while retired persons reported lower levels. “These data suggest greater stress-related health risks among women, younger adults, those of lower socioeconomic status, and men potentially subject to substantial losses of income and wealth.” 1
If you are one of those persons who feel the effects of stress in your life, don’t despair. You have more influence over the amount of stress you experience than you may think. Here are seven lifestyle habits that will reduce your stress levels and improve the quality of your life:
- Practice meditation and relaxation skills on a regular basis
- Exercise daily – a combination of aerobic exercise with some strength training is optimal
- Get enough sleep
- Eat nutritious food and less of it
- Minimize exposure to toxic substances (and toxic environments)
- Maintain social and supportive connections, and
- Schedule pleasant activities each week
This may sound like a lot to take on. But don’t think of it as an all or nothing proposition. Every step you take in these directions will make a positive difference. And as you do so, you will begin to notice increased energy, a more positive state of mind, and greater tolerance, all of which will make it easier for you to manage your day-to-day commitments more effectively and with less stress.
- COHEN, S. and JANICKI-DEVERTS, D. (2012), Who’s Stressed? Distributions of Psychological Stress in the United States in Probability Samples from 1983, 2006, and 2009. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42: 1320–1334. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2012.00900.x
“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.”
– Attributed to both Jim Goodwin and Sydney J. Harris