Idleness

Sunday May 21, 2006

loaf_and_lean

Recently I looked in the mirror to see my furrowed brow, thought about the one hundred and one things with which my life was filled and decided to get organised.

This is part of the problem with working freelance: you have so many different things to keep track of that it can feel, well, overwhelming. And it wasn’t as if my slapdash approach to organising my life was particularly helping.

I only needed to glance at my desk, stacked high with paper, to see the extent of the problem. There was hardly room even to put a cup of coffee down. And I was fed up, every time I had to fill in a form or reply to a letter, with the ritual of spending at least ten minutes, sometimes thirty, trying to track down the damn thing (checking with increasing desperation the pile on the left of the desk, the pile on the right, the pile on the floor, the recycling, the bin, the heap of post downstairs, the sheaf of papers that, unaccountably, had found its way to the top of the cupboard in the kitchen where it could only be reached with the help of a chair…). Something had to be done.

With enormous trepidation, I went into the bookshop and wandered into the business management section: hardly my natural environment. There is a certain lustre to the spines of books on business management that breeds fear in me. And all those soft-focus images of smiling management gurus with unhealthy tans and mouths over-full of perfect teeth give me the heebie-jeebies. Nevertheless, the problem could no longer be circumvented or ignored; so, keeping my fear in check, from amongst the rows of books I plucked Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done, paid for it and went home to try and sort out my life. I opened the first page, and read the following:

It is possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control. That’s a great way to live and work, at elevated levels of effectiveness and efficiency.

Overwhelming. Yes, that sounded close to the mark. Clear head. I certainly wanted that, wanted to be able to sit in meditation in the morning and actually meditate rather than running through to-do lists. Relaxed? That wouldn’t be bad either. And if a slight chill somehow ran down my spine as I read those opening words, what did it matter? Something had to be done, chill or no chill.

So I read the book. I bought a filing cabinet, an in-tray and a label printer. I gathered together all the piles of paper from every nook and cranny, put them on the floor in one huge mound of stuff, and began to sift through. It would take, Dave warned, two days. It did. But it was worth it: at the end of it, when my filing system was up and running and everything was in place, I was overcome by a feeling of lightness. My new system was easy to use. It worked smoothly. My head and desk were clear. The pile of paper had disappeared from the top of the kitchen cupboard. Life seemed somehow far simpler than it had seemed before. And I can now report that, several months later, it is still working. Getting Things Done has been of inestimable benefit to my life. No more desperate searches (or not as many…) for that lost bill. No more thinking, “I’ll just check the refrigerator. You never know… I might have put it in there in a moment of absent-mindedness.” And yet, for all this, that brief chill still remains when I re-read that first paragraph.

Why the chill? It seems to me that there is something wrong about the reduction of human to an accumulation of projects and activities, to endless productivity, efficiency and effectiveness. Surely there is more to life than this! I am not talking here about leisure here. Leisure is merely a way of refreshing us so that we can plunge back into the ceaseless round of productivity with renewed vigour. I am talking about something else. Call it idleness, if you like; or the loafing and leaning of which Walt Whitman writes in his Leaves of Grass:

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

Whilst on retreat last month, I found myself not only reflecting upon this kind of idleness, but actually loafing and leaning in a way that I rarely do, being so tangled up in the various projects of my life. The thing about being on retreat is that unless you are eating or meditating or working or sleeping, there is simply nothing to do. There are no demands upon you. Nothing to read. Nothing to write. No conversations to have. No e-mail to check. Nothing. No tasks to fulfil. Nothing to produce. Nothing to be efficient at.

For the first two days of my retreat, still caught up in thinking in terms of projects, I told myself that in the spaces between scheduled activities on the retreat programme I should do something: go for a walk, drink tea, reflect upon this or that aspect of Buddhism, fit in another half hour on the meditation cushions, have a sleep so that I might be wide awake for meditation later in the afternoon… and so on. But after a couple of days, this feeling and the mindset that went with it died away. After all, why do anything at all if you don’t have to? So soon I simply found myself, in these empty spaces, lying down on my bed and doing nothing other than simply lying there, for a half hour, an hour, sometimes more. Sometimes as I lay there I dozed – not because I wanted to doze or planned to doze – but merely because my mind slipped into the right kind of state for dozing. A lot of the time I just lay there looking at the ceiling, not really doing anything, not really thinking anything. Thoughts came and went, as the breath came and went, but I didn’t feel under any pressure to actively think them. Time passed, the bell rang, and I got up and went to do whatever was the next activity.

This kind of idleness is, I think, a rare and precious thing. It breaks with our obsession with our various projects. It allows us to settle more deeply into the astonishing fact of our being here at all. It allows us to see that, beyond the frenzy of outcomes and goals and targets and purposes, life simply persists as it will: the birds go on singing; the clouds pass through the sky; the blood continues to pulse in the veins; sounds, thoughts, sensations, ideas, impulses, moods come and go.

I have been back from the retreat for quite a few weeks now, plunging back into the mass of projects and tasks that make up my life. And it is no doubt good to get things done: as the great singer-songwriter Jeff Lewis says, “We’ve all got good things to do, and it’s good when we do them”. It is also no doubt good to do these things with a clear head and without too much stress and strain. But at the same time, I keep reminding myself that getting things done is only half of the story.

I went back to the business section of the bookshop to find out if anybody had written a counterpart to Dave Allen’s book, called Getting Nothing Done. Now, that’s a book I’d like to see…

But I came away disappointed.

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#1 · Janice

21 May 2006

That’s one for you to write, Will … you have a great start on it already

#2 · Will

21 May 2006

Maybe, Janice… But just at the moment I’m feeling too bone idle to attempt it.

Thanks for visiting.

;-)

Will

#3 · Dave

21 May 2006

Great essay…but I think you’re straying from Buddhism into thoroughly Daoist terrain! (Which is just fine with me, actually.)

#4 · Lewis

24 May 2006

Ah Will, exactly right. Doing nothing and doing something are both great. It’s REALLY doing one or the other that is the secret, like that old saying “sit when you sit, stand when you stand, whatever you do, don’t wobble!”

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