Too Busy?

I've dropped in on a yoga class with a popular teacher in Los Angeles. The room is full of slim blonde yoginis, moving like synchronized swimmers through a vinyasa series. Fifteen minutes into the sequence, the teacher calls the class together to demonstrate some subtle alignment details. Half the women in the room move forward. The rest turn on their cell phones and begin checking their messages.

Those women could have been doctors on call, or moms with young kids at home. But I suspect that they were victims, like so many people I know, of the Internal Busyness Syndrome—the breathless, stress-addicted feeling of having way too much to do and way too little time to do it. Internal Busyness, a complex of internally generated thoughts, beliefs, and bodily responses, can certainly be triggered by an especially busy day or a lot of competing demands. But unlike External Busyness, which is the more straightforward but often unavoidable state of having a lot to do, Internal Busyness doesn't go away when your tasks are done. That's why it's so insidious. External busyness—the admittedly challenging pressure that comes from juggling a demanding job, children, financial worries, health issues, and all the tasks of running your life and household—can be managed. It can even be a yogic pathway, if you know how to practice with it. Internal Busyness, however, manages you.

So when people tell me "I'm so busy I can't find time to practice," I always ask them which kind of busyness they're distressed by: the External or the Internal. One tip-off that you might be suffering from the Internal Busyness Syndrome is this: When you don't have an immediate task that has to be done, when you have a moment that could be devoted to taking a few quiet breaths or just spacing out, do you ever find yourself still spinning internally, wondering what you've forgotten to take care of? That's Internal Busyness.

The paradox of busyness is a bit like the paradox of stress. On the one hand, human beings are built to be busy. We're hardwired for action; when it comes to developing our minds, muscles, or life-skills, it's use them or lose them. To live is to act, as Krishna crisply and unequivocally reminds his disciple Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Besides, there's a lot of bliss in using our skills. Given the choice, most of us would opt for a full life, even at the cost of having too much to do. Happiness, so elusive when we're pursuing it, has a way of sneaking up on us when we're fully absorbed in doing something, even if it's just washing the dishes.

But even an extrovert who loves the game of living knows the dark, compulsive side of busyness. You feel overwhelmed, driven by your schedule, yet afraid of what will happen if you let something go. You run on caffeine and adrenaline, get impatient with your kids and then feel guilty, dread passing a friend on the street because you know you'll have to stop and talk to him. Feeling really busy or in a hurry can make you so task-focused that you ignore others' needs as well as your own. In the famous Princeton Good Samaritan study, nearly all the students observed walked right past a man apparently having a heart attack on the sidewalk. When interviewed later, most of the people who didn't stop gave as their reason that they were in a hurry to get to a class. Being busy overrode their humanity every time.

Busyness as a Time Bind
That study offered an important clue about Internal Busyness. It's rooted in our attitude toward time. When the pace of work is intensified, as it is in modern industrial and post-industrial societies, we come to see time as a finite, ever-dwindling commodity, like our oil reserves. Because time feels scarce, we try to get more out of our minutes, to squeeze the maximum productivity out of every minute of time.

That's one reason why when you feel busy, you tend to spend less time on activities like meditation, contemplation, singing—all things that can't be made to increase their "yield" on the minutes we spend on them. Even as spiritual practitioners, supposedly people with our eyes trained on the inner depths of life, we often find ourselves living by the basic capitalist assumption that more is better, and that what we do needs to yield a quantifiable result.

How many of us got more interested in meditation when we began reading about the University of Wisconsin MRI studies that showed that people who meditate can increase activity in the happiness section of the brain? We expect our practice to give us something measurable, make us more desirable, give us more career leverage, or at least rejuvenate us so that we can go out and work more. Our spiritual practice becomes valued for its usefulness in our external lives, rather than the source of peace and well being that it was intended to be. This assumption—that if we're going to spend time on something it needs to produce a measurable yield—is one root of Internal Busyness.