In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, philosopher Josef Pieper warns that society is drifting dangerously close to a state of what he calls total work—moving at an increasingly frenetic pace and prioritising production and efficiency at the expense of stillness and receptivity. The book was published in 1948, before the advent of the personal computer, internet or smartphone—if Pieper could see how things are today, he would presumably be spinning (at a leisurely pace) in his grave.
Anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen distinguishes between fast-time activities (such as a report that is needed by a deadline) and slow-time activities (such as the creation of a sculpture purely for pleasure). When we are choosing which activities to engage in, the ones that are required and have deadlines often take priority over those that are optional and have no deadlines. Too often, for too many of us, efficiency is king, and time is money—and we fail to give slow-time activities their proper due.
Often, the problem is not that we lack the time to, say, create a sculpture for pleasure, but that our culture persuades us that creating such a sculpture would be frivolous. Caught up in this culture, we may think, How can I possibly take time to engage in spiritual restoration when my inbox is full of unread messages?
Sociologist Liah Greenfeld points out that this mindset can be an obstacle to spiritual restoration:
We are busy, not because our physical and economic survival requires constant exertion on our part, leaving us little opportunity for spiritual restoration—relaxing, getting rid of the sense of busyness—but because we are incapable of perceiving and taking advantage of the opportunities for repose. We are restless.
This restlessness is partly due to an overabundance of choice. Greenfield suggests that “Americans who suffer from busyness today do not prioritize … They treat all their occupations—work, family, and even leisure—as equally important.” In the digital age, people can engage in all these activities wherever they are: when they are at home, they can still connect with co-workers; when they are at work, they can still connect with family; when they are relaxing, their mobile devices are usually within reach, tempting them to attend immediately to any matter that occurs to them. There is always something to get done, and as a result, many of us find that we are unable to simply sit and think.
This Is Your Mind on Busyness
“Thinking is by its very nature a slow‐time activity,” writes David Levy. “Its more creative aspects—both the work of concentrated reasoning and the leisure of sudden insight—generally require substantial investments of sustained attention, which cannot be truncated or rushed.” But giving anything that kind of sustained attention is difficult because there is always something to get done, and our minds are usually in fast-time mode. We get caught up in what Levy describes as “the incessant and obsessive internal monologue that fills the head with snatches of memories, plans, and stories, very often centred around the self.” When we engage in fast-time activities, this kind of chatter is typically always there, in the background.
Neuropsychologists call the area of the brain in which this takes place the “default mode network”—a part of the medial prefrontal cortex that is involved in self-referential processing. If left unchecked, this processing can become brooding or rumination—which, as researchers Gregory Bratman et al. explain, is “a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses.”
The human ability to think about past experiences and consider possible futures probably evolved because mental simulations help us assess danger, find resources and reinforce useful behaviours. But in the modern world, many of us live in relative safety and abundance, and our tendency to ruminate about the past and the future need not be so active. “The brain continues to produce simulations today, even when they have nothing to do with staying alive,” explain Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius in Buddha’s Brain. Our default mode of thinking is neither restful nor restorative nor conducive to concentrated reasoning and creative insight.
The good news is that humans have the ability to reduce the amount of rumination they do. As Levy writes:
Torrents of mind chatter can make it difficult to focus on, or to stay focused on, a problem or an idea. Yet it is also clear that the mind can be trained, like a muscle group that is strengthened and made more flexible through exercise. Indeed, contemplative practices are methods of training the mind, helping it to quiet down and building up the attentional faculty, so it can remain more deeply focused for longer periods of time.
Researchers have used fMRI imaging to chart the regions of the brain associated with the default mode network, and have found that experienced meditators show less activity in these regions during meditation than people who are performing an active cognitive task or are at rest. By quieting the default mode network, meditation provides a way to experience slow-time. In meditation, there is no problem to be solved: the task is simply to be aware of the passing stream of consciousness, without allowing reactivity or restlessness to push you into getting something done. Setting aside time to meditate each day can gradually train the mind to minimize brooding and rumination.
Other experiences, such as walking in nature, can also reduce the activity of the default mode network. In one study, participants who took a 90-minute nature walk reported less rumination than participants who took a similar walk in an urban environment. When one is not caught up in analysing the past, fretting about the future, or running simulations, the brain is better prepared to engage in a different mode of thought—one that can be experienced as more meaningful and have a positive impact on one’s life.
The Power of Stillness
“Leisure is a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality,” writes Josef Peiper. “Only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear.” Hearing, in this sense, is more than the sensory input received by our ears: it is a state of receptivity that can inspire creativity and insight. As Levy puts it, “By tuning the attentional instrument, such practices have the potential to reduce mind chatter and increase concentration; and while they can’t directly stimulate creative thought, they do seem to prepare the ground for them, making it easier to hear them when they arise.”
What can a state of receptivity enable? In The Gift, Lewis Hyde’s seminal work on creativity, he makes a distinction between work (an intended activity accomplished through will) and labour (an activity, such as writing a poem, raising a child or inventing a gadget, that may be intentional, but unfolds in its own time): “When I speak of labour … I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of life rather than by society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work.”
The interior nature of labour is such that it can only occur as a slow-time activity. One can intend to write a poem, but one cannot ignite the required creativity by sheer force of will. Instead, one must combine intention with leisure. One must take a step back, cultivate one’s skill with patience and lay the groundwork for inspiration to arrive. As Hyde explains, “For the slow labour of realizing a potential gift the artist must retreat to those Bohemias, halfway between the slums and the library, where life is not counted by the clock and where the talented may be sure they will be ignored until that time, if it ever comes, when their gifts are viable enough to be set free and survive in the world.”
It may seem counterintuitive that retreating and waiting are essential steps towards accomplishing a great labour. But many artists and thinkers have confirmed the truth of this. Hyde quotes writer Czeslaw Milosz: “I felt very strongly that nothing depended on my will, that everything I might accomplish in life would be not won by my own efforts but given as a gift.”
It is difficult to predict when creativity will arise, but stillness can produce the state of receptivity in which it is most likely. As Hyde puts it, “An essential portion of any artist’s labour is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made—it must be received.”
This state of receptivity can be thought of as the space created by stepping back from doing. When fast-time activities take priority and mind chatter is loud, a total work mentality can take hold, in which tasks are to be efficiently accomplished, rather than experienced, enjoyed and lingered over. Hyde describes what is lost when this happens: “Without the imagination, we can do no more than spin the future out of the logic of the present; we will never be led into new life because we can work only from the known,”
In meditation, when walking in nature or when crafting a poem, not only is the default mode network quieted, but the mind is given a clearer space in which to observe. In this clear space, one is not being mindless but mindful. As Levy explains, “Idleness … is a disengagement from reality. Leisure, by contrast, is an openness to the world, to things as they are, rather than as we wish them to be.” This openness activates the imagination, delineating the space in which the attention is engaged, and creativity can flourish. In a culture that pushes us to be always racing towards the next hurdle, stillness can be a radical act. And, as a result of such an act, meaningful change can take place.
The Role of Effort
It might be tempting to conclude that low-key activities like going to a spa or watching Netflix might also qualify as radical acts. Not so: there is a huge difference between mere idleness and creative leisure, between mere relaxation and receptive contemplation. Idleness and relaxation do nothing to reduce the background noise of mind chatter. The default mode network does not go offline when one goes online. In fact, in one study, researchers found that rumination can lead to increased smartphone use as a tool for distraction, which can further reinforce ruminating tendencies.
Another common confusion is that letting go of an attachment to accomplishment is the same thing as indifference. In fact, there is nothing creative about indifference—or about a mere lack of action. “When we look carefully … we may find … an indifference based in fear or aversion, that justifies itself by using spiritual language,” as Buddhist teacher and activist Donald Rothberg puts it. “Even though in formal meditation practice we are often sitting and not moving or speaking … such practice is still in many ways a very basic form of action … We’re training our minds and hearts and bodies.” Such training creates the fertile state from which creativity can develop. Going to a spa can be rejuvenating; watching Netflix can be diverting—but these activities are no substitute for the intentional acts of creative leisure, labour and contemplation.
Making the Time
It can be challenging to make time for contemplation when most of us are under so many obligations—social, familial, professional. We sometimes mistakenly imagine that at some point our to-do list will be finished, and then we’ll be able to devote ourselves to what is meaningful. But, in fact, it is necessary to make space for slow-time activities even while we feel the crush of fast-time activities—even while we attend to earning a living and taking care of family. Indeed, making this space can transform our experience of those obligations so that they become less oppressive and more joyful. As Greenfeld says, “If what we do is not the cause of our having no rest, the explanation must be sought elsewhere — perhaps, in how we do it.”
The first step is to notice where we might be able to create the space for stillness. As Rothberg suggests, “You can … simply set up periods of quiet meditation, in which you listen, without much active thinking, inviting some further clarity about your vocation to be present.” By balancing our outer work with inner work and making the space for stillness in our lives, we can maintain our dedication but learn to relinquish our attachment to outcomes.
In order to learn to observe how we do things, it is essential to turn our attention away from thoughts about the past or future, and towards our experience of the present moment. Meditation can help us learn to do this: it quiets our mind chatter, grounds us in the moment, enables us to pause and observe. Once we make space for this practice, we often find that it leads to creative action.
We may even find effective solutions that we were too busy to notice before. Activities that call upon our engaged attention—such as mindfulness meditation practice, contemplation of nature, playing an instrument or creating a work of art—can teach us to quiet mind chatter and rest in present-moment experience, out of which creativity can bloom. The role of stillness in laying the groundwork for meaningful action has often been overlooked, but that is because we are so used to focusing on the future. If we’re willing to sit still and focus on the present, we may find that the answers are right in front of us.