The Suffering of Busyness

When life starts moving fast, Charlotte Rotterdam asks herself, “Can I just stop?”

Lopön Charlotte Z. Rotterdam
15 April 2018

I grew up with the idea that the rich and powerful lounged on a beach all day, without a care in the world. Now, I feel like everyone proves their social status by flaunting how many commitments and responsibilities they have. A recent study found that busyness rivals wealth as a symbol of status in America. I’ve certainly found myself commiserating with friends about long to-do lists, countless work duties, and an overflowing email inbox. “How are you?” they ask, and I respond, “Busy, busy, busy.” It’s an easy and almost-always-accurate answer.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche writes that the particular suffering of humans is characterized as “busyness.” We humans are adept at enveloping ourselves in a web of distraction, going out of our way to fill our free time with more to-dos. We are fighting to fill space.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche described one of the primary human anxieties as a “fear of space.” Activity gives us a point of reference – something to do, somewhere to be. We get uncomfortable in the empty slots in our schedules. Alone at a restaurant table, we check Facebook, write a text, or read an article. The line between activity and distraction becomes blurred. When I read the news, am I educating myself about the world, or distracting myself from the looming question, “What am I doing with my life?” When I do the dishes, am I cleaning up, or avoiding a tough conversation with my husband?

Our busyness keeps us from facing impermanence and uncertainty — the basic truths of our existence. I do; therefore, I am. I’m busy; therefore, I exist.

All things are passing. When we rest in the present moment, we’re faced with this directly. This realization doesn’t have to be cause for depression. It can be a reminder of the preciousness of our life. Relaxing into the vulnerability of unknowing and facing our direct experience can be courageous. It’s an opportunity to taste vast, interconnected spaciousness — the groundless ground that has no reference points or handles.

With awareness, I can recognize the space, and find that it isn’t scary. It’s open and gentle.

For me, solitary retreats force me to face my fear of space. In retreat, alone in an eight-by-eight foot cabin, I often ask myself why I ever thought it would be a good idea to separate myself from my children, my husband, and all the fun things I could be doing at home. Retreat can be lonely, with nowhere to go, no one demanding anything from me. But, over time my eyes see in a new way, my ears hear new sounds. I coo duets with an evening dove, watch dragonflies hook their front legs to a Ponderosa branch and hang until the early dawn. I’m able to recognize that I am far from alone, feeling the seamlessness of my connection to the world. But we shouldn’t have to go into retreat to press pause on our busyness.

My personal mantra has become “Could I just stop?” Stop the dishes, emails, planning, and worrying? Can I rest in the now as it is? This might mean that I turn off the faucet, close the computer, or put down the phone. Sometimes it means taking a moment to let my awareness expand — to feel my body… hear the rain hit the windowsill… rejoice in a gap between thoughts. With awareness, I can recognize the space, and find that it isn’t scary. It’s open and gentle.

Busyness also serves as a distraction from dissatisfaction — the sense that somehow right now is not quite it. Maybe in the future, in some different, better place, things will be right. So often, we drag our dissatisfaction around with us like a dead weight.

The Buddhist teachings on karma can lend some insight into the source of this dissatisfaction.  Karma literally translates to “action.” In Vajrayana Buddhism, there are five wisdom energies, known as “Buddha families.” The karma family is related to envy and jealousy; but it also relates to enlightened wisdom, described as “all-accomplishing action.” Envy and jealousy arise out of the feeling that someone has something we would like, but do not have, reflecting an underlying sense of lack and craving. We become painfully aware of others’ success. Having toyed with the idea of completing a PhD for the last 15 years, I notice a twinge of pain whenever someone talks of finishing their dissertation.

When I feel that uncomfortable twinge, I can turn on the radio and distract myself with the latest political upsets. I can dig into the sink of dirty dishes, or sweep dust from the floor. These activities keep me from inquiring into my sense of unfulfillment.

No action can fulfill us because what we’re inevitably searching for – the fulfillment of our true nature – has already always been present.

The wisdom aspect of the Karma Family is “all-accomplishing action.” This is the wisdom of our inherent buddhanature. It is our true nature, not created or manufactured.  We don’t need to busy ourselves with fabricating or establishing it — it is already accomplished, already perfected. The point of all our spiritual practice is to realize this nature, rather than madly engaging in actions to fix our imperfections. No action can fulfill us because what we’re inevitably searching for – the fulfillment of our true nature – has already always been present.

So are we supposed to just do nothing from now on? Of course not. We engage with the world — creating, serving, planting gardens, and raising children. Our actions do not need to come from a place of wanting to fix anything. One activity doesn’t need to catapult us into the impatient arms of the next.  We can cultivate a sense of “all-accomplishment” with very simple actions, resting in the experience of fulfilment. Before we fork up our next bite of food, what might it be like to just chew the one we already have, taste it fully, and feel it nourishing our body? We can learn to take a moment to recognize completion in any activity, stopping us from rushing onto our next distraction.

I had such an experience when I gave birth to my first son, Mateo. The labor had gone on far longer than I had hoped, but with one final push he was here. The nurse and my husband took him out of the room to be washed. I lay alone in my bed, gazing out the window. Relaxation flowed over me — my work was done, my labor completed. I felt no sense of urgency to move to the next thing. For that moment, the present was absolutely perfect.

That feeling has remained with me as a reminder of the possibility of true satisfaction. Every action we take offers the opportunity to experience this. With every sip of tea, and every email sent, we can take a moment to acknowledge that we’ve have completed that task — to feel its satisfaction. Perhaps this can begin to heal the sense of dissatisfaction that so often haunts us.

It’s easy to see ourselves as a victim of our busy world. In my own life, I realize that much of my continual distraction is my own responsibility, and choose to take ownership of the ways that I perpetuate a never-ending cycle of activity. This awareness inspires me to step into every experience with ownership knowing I could just stop. I can stop seeing busyness as proof that my life has meaning. With nowhere to go, and nothing to do, I can rest for a moment in the satisfaction of completion.

Lopön Charlotte Z. Rotterdam

Lopön Charlotte Z. Rotterdam

Lopön Charlotte Rotterdam is a Senior Teacher at Tara Mandala Buddhist Retreat Center and a long-time student of Lama Tsultrim Allione. She is the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Contemplative Education at Naropa University and an instructor in Naropa’s Core College and Graduate School of Psychology. She co-developed and co-teaches Naropa’s Mindful Compassion Training, a secular program to cultivate compassion in personal, professional and societal contexts.