So many people these days are victims 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. 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 there is 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 them. 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. 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
Internal Busyness is rooted in our attitude towards 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. 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.
One powerful way you can work with your tendencies to internal busyness is to give yourself periodic 2- to 3-minute pauses during your day. Whether sitting at the desk, doing the laundry, even driving, play with a yogic practice like the ones that follow—just for its own sake! The idea is to do it without expecting results. (Of course, there will be a result—you’ll feel better.)
Practice Break: Anti-Rushing
This practice releases the compulsion that often arises when you’re in a hurry. Try it now, then practice it the next time you feel yourself rushing.
Stop. Stand or sit totally still for one full minute. First, say to yourself, “I have all the time in the world.” Then, bring to mind the image of a Spiritual Master or yourself in meditation. Hold the thought of that in your mind while you breathe deeply and slowly five times. Feel free to keep that image in your mind as you continue on your way.
Busyness as an Addiction
Activity addiction is like any other addiction; as it progresses you need more and more activity to get the original glow. So you add one more item to your schedule, and another. People ask you to join a committee and you can’t resist. You hear about a conference or a project and angle to get on it. You add clients, or classes. You speed date, go to two or three parties each weekend, sign your kid up for after-school activities six days a week. It’s not just that you’re distracted. Being busy has become an addiction.
Busyness and Self-importance
Another reason we keep ourselves busy is because it helps us feel needed, competent, even important. But there’s a balance issue here. While it’s normal to derive healthy self-esteem from being engaged with our world, the ego’s addiction to busyness has at its core a terror of its own emptiness. The ego feels, “If I’m busy, that means I exist. I’m worthwhile. I’m wanted.” When you’re active and engaged, you feel like part of the rhythm of life. Other busy people find you worthwhile and interesting. Our culture reinforces our assumption that being busy equals being productive and important. Very often, before we can move out of our busyness syndrome, we need to remind ourselves again and again that we are not defined by our job, our role, or how sought after we are. The following contemplation can be done in a moment or two, and it’s one of the great practices for recalibrating your sense of yourself.
Practice Break: Find the Non-Verbal I Am
Stop. Close your eyes. Ask yourself, “When I’m not busy, not engaged, not productive, who am I? When I’m not thinking, not moving around, not emotionally engaged, who am I?”
Rather than looking for a verbal answer or an insight, tune into the space that opens up.
Yoga for Internal Busyness
Dealing with External Busyness nearly always demands some practical solutions—delegating, dropping or letting go of certain activities, maybe even giving yourself a weekly Sabbath, a real day of rest and inner contemplation. But Internal Busyness is the domain of yoga. To really address your internal busyness, you need two types of yoga: First, you need inner practices that take you to your centre, to find the calm beneath the storm. A daily meditation practice is crucial, but so are micro-practices that you can do throughout the day. Second, you need to cultivate attitudes that turn your frenzied activity into karma yoga, which is the path to union through action.
But work becomes yoga only when you act with inner focus. Otherwise, you might be doing wonderful things in the world—making great art, doing poverty law, or working for the environment—but still feel overwhelmed, under appreciated, and burnt out. To have inner focus is to be in touch with something inside us that is still, that is not touched by action.
Real karma yoga shifts your relationship to time. You might have actually experienced such a moment, when time seemed to cease to exist. Maybe you were truly engrossed in a task. Maybe it happened on a walk, or on your mountain bike, or even when your car skidded on the ice and swerved off the road. One minute, you’re in “normal” clock time, maybe feeling normal time pressure, or wishing the clock would move faster. The next, time slows, and you’re in the gap between Now and Then, between Past and Future. In that gap, the Timeless Eternal Present moment arises. There is no time pressure, because there is no time. When you can enter that zone, you have all the time you need to complete whatever task is necessary.
The shift comes with a decision to focus inward at a moment of stress, and to allow the Gap, the place of stillness where time slows down, to show its face. In the space between the end of one action and the beginning of the next, between one breath and another, we can merge into the source of all action, “the still point between the turning worlds.” Known in Sanskrit as the Madhya, the Center point, or the Gap, this doorway into spaciousness arises in every moment. We just don’t normally notice it.
Meditation is the way we train ourselves to notice. (It’s not an accident that when Krishna began teaching his disciple Arjuna the actual methodology of the yoga of action, he started him off with meditation.) When we meditate, we practice resting in the still point, in the Ground of Being. Once we’ve learned to inhabit it with our eyes closed, we can begin to recognize the Gap when it shows up in the midst of activity and actions that flow from that quiet place, have a power beyond the ordinary mind.
Practice Break: Find the Still Point in the Midst of Action
Right now, in your seat, begin to sway slowly from side to side, inhaling to one side, exhaling to the other. At the end of each phase of the movement, notice the pause. Tune into the pause that shows up on the right side, then on the left. Focus on the pause for a few seconds, then let the movement flow from that. Do this for two minutes. Notice the effect. See if you can hold that space of quiet when you move onto your next activity. If you can move from that place of quiet, even for a few minutes at a time, you might find that even in your busyness, you can find the timeless.