The Importance of Being Idle

Most of us have been conditioned to believe that the most effective way to live life is to plan our time, starting from planning the hours in our day, to weeks, ideally months, preferably also years and if at all possible, lifetimes.

The result as we know from experience is missed deadlines, stress, anxiety and a feeling of failure at not being able to cope with our own expectations. Big surprise there, right? Consultants, lawyers and many others have faced the draining pressure to account for every minute of their working time – to justify what precisely they were doing 5 minutes after they arrived at work and why it took them 35 and not 30 minutes for that call with the client, etc.  While some planning is no doubt necessary for practical life, I think it’s fair to say that we clearly overemphasize and exaggerate the importance of it most of the time.

We were supposed to be more idle by now

It appears that just under a century ago, thinkers of the time were quite sanguine about the prospects of a less hard-working world. The economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted in his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’ that over the coming century, productivity would increase so much that people would only need to work about 15 hours a week. Bertrand Russel penned an essay In Praise of Idleness’ in 1932 where he recommended a 4-hour work-day and proclaimed:

“I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”

So what happened? Why did the belief in the ‘virtuousness of work’, rather than giving way to an acknowledgement of the virtues of rest, transform instead into a belief in the ‘virtuousness of too much work’? Well for starters, if the department meant to care for the employees of a corporation is called ‘Human Resources’, then it’s no surprise that they would treat humans like resources to exploit! Incentive systems in most corporations still focus solely on relatively short-term employee productivity. Mainly it seems, whether we’re the employer chasing dollars or the employee chasing dollars, we can never get enough.

The fundamental human affliction is to always want more – it’s the human condition. When someone realises that this condition is a pretty terminal one, they usually turn spiritual.

What is the right basis for action?

Most corporations and individuals still take no note of the right basis for action. Action is therefore something that is compulsive rather than conscious. Even when we don’t need to, we often can’t help but act because of an inability to sit quietly by ourselves. We need to constantly be occupied with something. There’s a fear that you will be left behind or that the world is tapping its foot waiting for you to act.

These are all ideas based on greed, fear and compulsiveness that have led to the world being so overly productive that there are scarcely any natural resources left for us to do all we still want to do. The human engine has devoured the planet at an alarming rate basically because of an inability to sit quietly and enjoy a bit of idleness.

The word idleness itself has a negative, undesirable connotation. All it’s referring to however, is rest. Most of us only rest when we are forced to i.e. we have spent all our energy and none remains for more action. This only deteriorates the quality of our rest. It thereby also deteriorates the quality of future action because rest is the basis of all action. This is ancient wisdom that appears in the Bhagavad Gita and earlier. The Bhagavad Gita states:

“yogasth kuru karmani” which means, first establish yourself in yoga, then act.

This does not mean that you need to twist your body into a yoga asana before doing anything important. Yoga refers to the state in which your individuality is merged into universality. You no longer think like a ‘person’ with all your personal needs, wants and problems. You are in the natural rhythm of life and in the vein of the universal flow. This is a restful state from which actions flow without the feeling of effort.

So here’s a quick take-away: be a 5 minute yogi a day. Take 5 minutes out of your day to simply ‘be’. Take a break from your mind that’s always itching to fix some problem and project some scenario. Just acknowledge nothing but your effortless existence for 5 minutes a day. The deep rest you will experience is the right basis for action. And right, conscious action is what the world needs most.

This article was written for the LivingWise Project.

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