September 11, 2013

Do Idle Hands Really Make the Devil’s Work? ~ UB Hawthorn

Photo: Donnie Nunley

Solving climate change is pretty simple. As a species, all we have to “do” is simply do less.

The recent financial crisis is a case in point: economic stagnation resulted in a corresponding decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. Maintain that recessionary effect for a few years and voilà—Kyoto target, here we are.

Of course intentional economic stagnation is not a likely scenario given our thirst for gross domestic productivity, but the point is that by simply doing less, we can prevent the greatest calamity in the Earth’s history. And what’s best for the Earth is best for us, since doing less actually improves the quality of our lives.

Less is more

“Don’t just sit there, do something,” Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh likes to say. Leave it to Zen to flip things around and force us to think.

Nhat Hanh designates one day of every week, Sunday, as a lazy day in his community at Plum Village in France.  He expounds the benefits of laziness in part because our culture has become far too busy.  The antidote to all this busyness is laziness.

Doing nothing gives space to just be, allowing us to realize the true beauty of the present moment. Even something as simple as nature becomes fascinating, sufficient enough to keep our awareness in the present.

Nhat Hanh refers to himself as a lazy monk.

“I have a lot of time for myself. And that’s not easy. My nature is that I don’t like to disappoint people, and it is very difficult for me to say no to invitations,” he says in an interview with Tricycle. “But, I have learned to know my limit, learned to say no and to withdraw to my hermitage to have time for my walking meditation, my sitting, my time with the garden, with the flowers and things like that. I have not used the telephone for the last twenty-five years.”

Nhat Hanh is a living example of the power of doing through being. He has much wisdom to share, yet he conserves his energy, knowing that were he to expend too much of himself, he would have less to give everyone. Some may see it as a selfish act, but in reality it’s true wisdom—he’s able to be truly present and serve some in full concentration rather than offer a diluted solution to everyone.

In our culture of “do till you drop,” even good deeds get turned into a commodity. The effect of the commoditization of good is that everyone suffers. An extreme example would be of imperialist do-gooders who go into the developing world and impose their desire to help on those who don’t really need any help or who don’t necessarily want to change.

If we’re not truly present when doing something for someone, we lack the level of engagement to really be there for them. It’s possible to be there in body, but not in spirit, robbing the recipient of the greatest gift we have to offer: our presence.

Half presence doesn’t just present a problem to the recipient, but also to the helper. By continually draining the pot, we pour out everything we have without taking an opportunity to refill; hence the need for the lazy day Nhat Hanh advocates.

The compulsion to do

Idle hands make devil’s work—how did humanity ever come to accept these words as truth? Yes, being idle can lead people to do dumb things, but that doesn’t mean that idleness is the cause of the problem. It is the intent behind the idleness that is an issue.

Problems occur because people don’t appreciate the sacredness of life and don’t take the time to experience life in the present moment. Choosing to fill every gap in the day with stuff inevitably leads to a compulsion to do anything, to do just for the sake of doing.

The planet is buckling under the weight of all this need to “do;” the compulsion to do has created a culture of distraction that has kept our minds off the many problems we create as a result of all the busyness.

If “to be or not to be” is a question worth asking, so too is “to do or not to do.” Yet it’s one not often asked. We do stuff, anything, just to keep occupied. Craving and aversion lie at the root of this need to do. As if overcoming these forces wasn’t difficult enough, with rapid technological progress we’ve sped up so much that we fire out one decision after another, responding to the overwhelming amount of choices available to us. I want this, don’t want that—we’ve become finely tuned choosing machines.

As being has slipped from our lives, technology has quickly filled the gap. Not long ago people were content with doing less, because it was easier to do less. No Internet, no TV, no mobile phones, no Xbox. With less to do, naturally there was more time to be.

Getting from do to be

Thich Nhat Hanh advocates a form of mindfulness practice that’s well suited for our busy culture and compulsion to do. As one of the Buddha’s noble eightfold path, mindfulness has been practiced for millennia. The basic practice itself is incredibly simple to learn, but takes a lifetime of practice to master.

Awareness of the breath, watching fork go to mouth with every bite of food, feeling every footstep land on the Earth—these are all ways to practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is about taking the mundane, everyday occurrences in life and bringing conscious awareness to them.

Consistently transforming eating into a mindful act or walking to the store with awareness requires determination and patience. Developing a regular meditation practice takes even more effort. But unlike straining to do something, it’s a natural kind of effort that comes from a deep need within to reconnect to ourselves. And as we reconnect to ourselves, an appreciation for life naturally arises that nourishes our appreciation for the simple things, things like nature. Environmentalism the easy way—all we need to do is do less and be more.


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Assistant Ed: Katharine Spano / Ed: Catherine Monkman

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