April 20, 2011

Three Kinds of Laziness

This excerpt is an adaptation from Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo's new book Into the Heart of Life, which is the Tricycle Book Club selection for July, taken from Snow Lion: The Buddhist Magazine & Catalog, a quarterly effort from Snow Lion Publications. She will also be leading July's Tricycle Retreat.

The Buddha described three kinds of laziness. First there is the kind of laziness we all know: we don't want to do anything, and we'd rather stay in bed half an hour later than get up and meditate. Second, there is the laziness of feeling ourselves unworthy, the laziness of thinking, "I can't do this. Other people can meditate, other people can be mindful, other people can be kind and generous in difficult situations, but I can't, because I'm too stupid." Or, alternatively, "I'm always an angry person;" "I've never been able to do anything in my life;" "I've always failed, and I'm bound to fail." This is laziness.

The third kind of laziness is being busy with worldly things. We can always fill up the vacuum of our time by keeping ever so busy. Being occupied may even make us feel virtuous. But usually it's just a way of escape. When I cam out of the cave, some people said, "Don't you think that solitude was an escape?" And I said, "An escape from what?" There I was—no radio, no newspapers, no one to talk to. Where was I going to escape to? When things came up, I couldn't even telephone a friend. I was face-to-face with who I was and with who I was not. There was no escape.

Our ordinary lives are so busy, our days are so full, but we never have any space even to sit for a minute and just be. That's escape. One of my aunts always kept the radio on, or the television. She didn't like silence. Silence worried her. Background noise rang out at all times. And we're all like that. We're afraid of silence—outer silence, inner silence. When there's no noise going on outside we talk to ourselves—opinions and ideas and judgments and rehashes of what happened yesterday or during our childhood; what he said to me; what I said to him. Our fantasies, our daydreams, our hopes, our worries, our fears. There is no silence. Our noisy outer world is but a reflection of the noise inside: our incessant need to be occupied, to be doing something.

Recently I was talking with a very nice Australian monk who was once occupied with doing so many wonderful dharma activities that he became a workaholic. He would be up until two or three in the morning. Eventually he collapsed totally. His whole system fell apart and now he can't do anything. His mind is also slightly impaired in that he doesn't have very good concentration.

His problem was that his identity was connected with doing. As his work was for the Dharma is looked very virtuous. It looked like he was doing really good things. He was benefiting many people and carrying out the instructions of his teacher, but now that he can't do anything, who is he? And so he is going through a tremendous crisis because he always identified himself with what he did and with being able to succeed. Now he is not able to do anything and is dependent on others. So I said to him, "But this is a wonderful opportunity. Now, you don't have to do anything, you can just be." He said he was trying to come to that, but he found it threatening not to do anything, to just sit there and be with who he is, not what he does.

This is the point—we will our lives with activities. Many of them are really very good activities but if we are not careful, they can just be an escape. I'm not saying that you shouldn't do good and necessary things, but there has to be breathing in as well as breathing out. We need to have both the active and the contemplative. We need time to just be with ourselves, and to become genuinely centered, when the mind can just be quiet.

Image 1: Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
Image 2: from the Flickr photostream of stars alive  

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ploz2's picture

Hi - in reply to adrianhale's comment, it's not lazy, but it is scary. I realised recently that I've often (not always) been doing 'healthy' things as an escape, or as just another 'desire' to satisfy. I'm trying to re-evaluate my motivation and intention when I practice.

tara123's picture

Venerable Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo,

This reminds me of the value of old stories, like the one about the monk who was trying to meditate but getting nowhere. A master told him, "Practice the Dharma." So the monk circumnavigated the stupa, pausing to prostrate himself. Still he felt helpless. The master again told him, "Practice the Dharma." So he began to read all the texts he could find. Again, nothing. (I probably have the story wrong a bit.) The point I'm making is that our lives become one with the Dharma - like our own little "dharmaverse." But as in anything in life, it requires discipline, action, contemplation, clarity, and balance. Thank you very much for the reminder. In my practice, I often need a kick start, but once I'm busy doing what I need to do that day, practice takes on it's own life. Again, thank you.

suerkranz's picture

Someone once told me that I wasn't a "human doing", but a "human being." :) That was a long time ago, and only recently have I really starting learning how attached my identity is to what I do in the world. Now, as a singer, I have developed vocal "nudules" and coinciding with turning 50, my body is telling me I have to stop pushing, doing, and appreciate the peace of just being. Easier said than done :)

filmtao's picture

Yes, this is so on target. I am a doer and need to force myself to "just be" . I used to think I was my work. Fortunately that passed, but being busy and doing is my primary impulse. Yet, when I stop, such peace is found. I always used to call my doing "chop wood, carry water" until I realized that indeed it was an escape. Now I remind myself as often as possible to "stop" and enjoy the stillness.

poetess1966's picture

I used to be like that monk. I was an EMT and my whole identity was wrapped up in it. I didn't know how to be still. It wasn't the excitement of the sirens and lights, I felt like I was doing something good. I was serving. But when you work 80 hours straight, or work for 3 months with no off day, you really aren't serving, you are trying to justify to yourself your own existence. Then I got hurt. I fractured 4 vertebrae. I could no longer BE an EMT. And for a year I just drifted. I didn't know who or what I was anymore. Then my oldest son was born and I did the same thing, wrapped myself in the identity of "Mother". And again I got knocked down. A year after my youngest was born, I developed systemic lupus. I became the one who needed help. It forced me to slow down and be still. It forced me to really look at who I am. I realized that my whole life had been wrapped up in some tag line, EMT, mother, wife, friend. I didn't know who I was without them. That's when I came back to Buddhism and the simple advice, "sit still". It was so hard at first. That habit of constantly running kept trying to take over. Now, I am calmer, I don't have to have a tag line after my name anymore. I actually like the person I am now. Because I now have the ability to slow down and just be with whatever is in front of me, I'm a much better mother, wife and friend. I don't need the constant "busyness" anymore. And I cherish the time I spend meditating because that is what gave me the chance to finally be still.

shinydew628's picture

It's nice to be aware of some of these conditions of ourselves, but not to identify them as fixed being/doing of ourselves. There are reasons behind these mundane activities. It could be to escape or something else ,meaningful or not. Being aware of our habitual patterns itself is already setting your foot on the path of letting go.

lindaldavis's picture

Adrian, I always take Dharma books and magazines on retreat with me - just in case! Just in case I'm bored or restless or ? or ?. It's like having a back-door if things get too intense in the "just being" department. Aren't we something??

adrianhale's picture

A friend of mine at work who I share books on Buddism with told me recently that her teacher had told her dharma group to try to live without their usual props. So she had decided to try to manage without reading books for a while as she feels these have become a means of escape to somehwere else. This really struck me, as I read a lot. I feel if I am not meditating (which I do not do very much) I need at least to read something about dharma or ethics. I asked myself, what would I do if I stopped reading for a while? I actually felt really frightened by the prospect. I thought that I would feel as though I were wasting my time. Ofcourse, it might mean I would have to confront myself. But would I? I could use fantasies as props. Then I would have to let go of those as well. How, far could I go letting go? That feels scary. Or is it just lazy?

Bob Bone's picture

More and more I find myself switching off or not even turning on the t.v. Just so I can sit and observe in a peaceful quiet manner with no noise or distractions. Its like finding an old friend. I like to do this before any meditation....just be.