Busylessness – Are you too Busy?

I’m exploring the joys of being busy and taking a close look at the commitments in my life. What does it mean to be busy? To have commitments? Is it possible to have to many? I’ve heard Thich Nhat Hanh talk about something called busylessness, or businesslessness, [the correct term is “businessless” invented by Master Linji – added 4/26/08] but I’m not exactly sure what that means. I think it is a word just for those of us in the West who strive all the time. Who pursue something outside of ourselves. We work so hard that sometimes we don’t allow space for openness, for rest. We don’t allow enough space for doing nothing. Let’s take my life as an example (since I’m the one writing). As I look beyond my permanent commitments of being a partner and a parent, I see myself involved with many volunteer activities.

  • Chair, American Library Association Committee on Education (ends in June, then become a regular member)
  • Chair, Community & Junior College Librarians Section of ACRL (ends in June)
  • Chair, Ojai Valley Green Coalition Transportation Committee
  • Chair, Gold Coast Library Network
  • Member, ACRL Standards & Accreditation Committee (ends in June)
  • Member, Ojai Valley Library Friends & Foundation Board
  • Member, Council of Chief Librarians (starts in July)
  • Member, ALA Committee on Scholarship and Grants (starts in July)
  • Manage the Order of Interbeing Discussion Forum
  • Manage the Order of Interbeing Member Directory
  • Assisting with the re-engineering of the Order of Interbeing Sangha Directory
  • Leader of Ojai Sangha
  • Teach online classes three times per year
  • Stay at the homeless shelter once a week from November to March
  • Personal mentoring

All these activities are worthy of attention. I love all these activities and I enjoy being involved. Some I do because I am a professional who sees the value of engaging with my profession and with supporting our work as a professional community. Some I do because it is important to part of my local and spiritual community. But we all know there are only so many hours in the day (probably the reason I’m usually up at 4:30am).

Another aspect of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching has to do with engaged Buddhism. He coined this language in the mid-1950s in Vietnam. One meaning of engaged Buddhism could be that we practice Buddhism (or mindfulness) is everything we do, not just on the meditation cushion. Every moment is a moment to practice being present. So, when I am involved with any of the activities in my life I try and be fully present for that activity and to do it with mindfulness and concentration. This is a teaching tool for me as I look at my life action.

Ironically, this level of volunteer activity is not really anything new for me. I am very fortunate to have a loving and supportive life partner who sees the value of my volunteer work, but she also talks with me about her frustrations. And so, I have been invited to look more closely at my life action. One practice friend thinks that I may do too much with the Order of Interbeing and that I could be of more service by focusing my energies elsewhere. I think he means that I can bring my practice of mindfulness into those other areas of my life where it may not exist. This is an intriguing idea. I like to be involved, to be needed, to collaborate, and to be in the know. Some of this is ego and some of this is pure. I honestly love being of service, probably as a result of my religious and family roots (I was a missionary kid). There are two aspect to my volunteer work that troubles me: (1) time away from my family, and (2) environmental aspects of travel. The second is relatively easy to resolve but not perfectly. The first one is more challenging, especially when I leave for a 3-5 day conference. To address both these issues, I am trying to transition to more local/regional volunteer work rather than the national organizations. But I’m having a hard time saying no to the ALA requests. I’ve built up a network over the past 15 years of membership and have made an investment in the organization and it seems odd to let go of it.

So, I return to my questions from above. What does it mean to be busy? To have commitments? Is it possible to have to many? I honestly don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do have some clarity and focus to allow me to explore them further. What do you think? How do you handle volunteer commitments in your life? What’s a comfortable level of involvement for you?

  • cilla brady

    Hi Kenley,
    Yes in this day and age, and with our protestant work ethic backgrounds, being busy can be seen as being a good person, which it certainly is in moderation.

    Children grow very very fast, before you know it they’ve left the nest. Being with your children is very important and supporting your spouse in her work with the children is also crucial to avoid regrets and blame later on (which is not so far off as it seems).

    From your list it does look like way more than one person can handle. It would be interesting for you to look at the list and cross out some, which would free your life up to give more energy to the others.

    One thing that one finds to be true is that if you say no to a task, someone else WILL pick up the baton, and you can pass on your knowledge about the task so that the next person can keep it going successfully. Or not. Its possible no-one will but it will be OK nonetheless (you have to be over 50 to understand this one!!!)

    There is often a control issue with those who do too much, that they don’t believe anyone else can do it, or do it as well as they would, but in taking on too much this becomes true for you!

    Spaciousness and aimlessness are qualities we also need in our lives, especially with children who are also often pushed to stuff their lives with activities and need ‘down time’ too to rejuvinate.

    It may be good to meditate on which roles to let go of, and who could you pass those tasks on to.

    I know a lot about all this as I have also been there in busyness mode. I also know how big a relief it can be to let go or delegate out tasks that others may have plenty of time and energy for, and enjoy doing.

    In friendship, Cilla

  • cilla brady

    Hi Kenley,
    Yes in this day and age, and with our protestant work ethic backgrounds, being busy can be seen as being a good person, which it certainly is in moderation.

    Children grow very very fast, before you know it they’ve left the nest. Being with your children is very important and supporting your spouse in her work with the children is also crucial to avoid regrets and blame later on (which is not so far off as it seems).

    From your list it does look like way more than one person can handle. It would be interesting for you to look at the list and cross out some, which would free your life up to give more energy to the others.

    One thing that one finds to be true is that if you say no to a task, someone else WILL pick up the baton, and you can pass on your knowledge about the task so that the next person can keep it going successfully. Or not. Its possible no-one will but it will be OK nonetheless (you have to be over 50 to understand this one!!!)

    There is often a control issue with those who do too much, that they don’t believe anyone else can do it, or do it as well as they would, but in taking on too much this becomes true for you!

    Spaciousness and aimlessness are qualities we also need in our lives, especially with children who are also often pushed to stuff their lives with activities and need ‘down time’ too to rejuvinate.

    It may be good to meditate on which roles to let go of, and who could you pass those tasks on to.

    I know a lot about all this as I have also been there in busyness mode. I also know how big a relief it can be to let go or delegate out tasks that others may have plenty of time and energy for, and enjoy doing.

    In friendship, Cilla

  • Avi

    Businessless, I believe is not how many things you have to do but rather an attitude of aimlessness. I can have 50 things on my plate, and as long as I have no attachments, no designs, no worries about how to do them and I am happy with each thing I do, then I am a businessless person. If I have one thing on my plate and I am obsessing on how to get it done, then I am a busy person, even if everyone will laugh at my loose schedule. I believe it is the advice Thay was giving in the Miracle of Mindfulness.

  • Avi

    Businessless, I believe is not how many things you have to do but rather an attitude of aimlessness. I can have 50 things on my plate, and as long as I have no attachments, no designs, no worries about how to do them and I am happy with each thing I do, then I am a businessless person. If I have one thing on my plate and I am obsessing on how to get it done, then I am a busy person, even if everyone will laugh at my loose schedule. I believe it is the advice Thay was giving in the Miracle of Mindfulness.

  • Ben Marcune

    Dear Kenley and Sangha,

    You have posed some very interesting questions. As I look into the issue of busyness, what arises for me is more questions.
    In looking at the motivating forces behind being busy I ask, are we busy so as to avoid some sort of uncomfortableness with just being with the emptiness of existence? Or are we busy due to some ingrained ethic that says we are of no value unless we are engaged is some sort of productive activity? An affirmative answer to either of these questions may denote a state of being where we feel we have to always cling on to something that will either fill the space or try to give you some ground under your feet. But the practice is all about having the rug pulled out from under us and learning to relax with the emptiness.

    Having said this however, being at peace in the present moment does not exclude being engaged in activities. I guess the point is that as long as you are mindful of your actions than I believe the quantity or quality of your actions is a very personal decision. You just need to see clearly how it effects the people in your life, especially those closest to us, and then I’m sure you will find the Bodhisattva path of loving kindness.

    Thank you for the discussion. By raising this issue it has helped me to look deeper into my intentions.

    With gratitude,

    Ben Marcune
    Truly Holding Vows

  • Ben Marcune

    Dear Kenley and Sangha,

    You have posed some very interesting questions. As I look into the issue of busyness, what arises for me is more questions.
    In looking at the motivating forces behind being busy I ask, are we busy so as to avoid some sort of uncomfortableness with just being with the emptiness of existence? Or are we busy due to some ingrained ethic that says we are of no value unless we are engaged is some sort of productive activity? An affirmative answer to either of these questions may denote a state of being where we feel we have to always cling on to something that will either fill the space or try to give you some ground under your feet. But the practice is all about having the rug pulled out from under us and learning to relax with the emptiness.

    Having said this however, being at peace in the present moment does not exclude being engaged in activities. I guess the point is that as long as you are mindful of your actions than I believe the quantity or quality of your actions is a very personal decision. You just need to see clearly how it effects the people in your life, especially those closest to us, and then I’m sure you will find the Bodhisattva path of loving kindness.

    Thank you for the discussion. By raising this issue it has helped me to look deeper into my intentions.

    With gratitude,

    Ben Marcune
    Truly Holding Vows

  • Thank you Cilla, Avi, and Ben for the thoughtful comments and experiences. This is a great exploration for me and I’ve enjoyed looking closely at my life. I know that I do most of my activities with presence, love, and joy thanks to our practice of mindfulness. On occasion some obsessiveness will arise (usually on the cushion at 5am) but it gives me something to work with. 🙂

  • Thank you Cilla, Avi, and Ben for the thoughtful comments and experiences. This is a great exploration for me and I’ve enjoyed looking closely at my life. I know that I do most of my activities with presence, love, and joy thanks to our practice of mindfulness. On occasion some obsessiveness will arise (usually on the cushion at 5am) but it gives me something to work with. 🙂