By Lloyd J. Thomas, Ph.D.
We are in the middle of the busy "holiday season." Most of us are running around frantically searching for gifts, preparing celebrations, eating too much, drinking too much and sleeping too little. Indeed, most of us experience these days as being filled with too many activities that keep us "busy." The Chinese word for "busy" is made of two characters. The first is "heart," and the second is "killing." For the Chinese, to be busy is to kill the heart.
Children raised by insecure parents often learn that the faster they talk, the faster they move, the faster think, the safer they feel. A moving target is harder to hit. Such children seek safety in the speed of their activity and speech. They take refuge in relentless action. When they feel insecure about what they know, they produce more words and share them in rapid-fire, to hide their perceived ignorance. Constant motion keeps them from being caught. Relentless, busy activity distracts them from experiencing their fear. They are often misdiagnosed as "hyperactive" or having "attention deficit disorder" when they are actually trying only to protect themselves from a frightening environment. Their constant motion of mouth and body, kills their heart.
Desperate activity often masks our fear of our own insides. When we are still, we may discover our own pain, our own emptiness, our own fear, or our own self-image. So, rather than confront our own thoughts and feelings, we remain focused on outside activity. We run from one task to another with no moment of rest between completion of one and the beginning of another. We may even use speech to keep us from feeling alone. Loneliness also kills the heart-felt enthusiastic joy.
I know a man who was told by his cardiologist, "Slow down or die!" He was already working only an hour or two per day. Dr. James Lynch discovered that the mere act of speaking elevates our blood pressure by ten to fifty points after less than thirty seconds of everyday, non-angry, conversational speech. Mahatma Gandhi once said, "There is more to life than increasing its speed." When overwork and over talking becomes our lifestyle, we kill our hearts just a little.
The greatest psychological danger in constant busyness is that we neglect ourselves. We lose our awareness of our own needs, thoughts and desires. We lose the capacity to listen, not only to others, but to ourselves. In our constant rush, we forget our own talents, our own abilities, our own gifts, our own worth, our own inner wisdom. We habitually ignore who we really are. And when we are unaware of our value as the persons we genuinely are, we do violence to the heart of our lives...ourselves.
Thomas Merton writes, "There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence... activism and overwork. To allow oneself to be carried away by the multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence." Busyness kills the heart.
Stillness is the antidote for busyness. Silence is the antidote for talking too much. Perhaps, like the lake, stillness is our natural state. The surface of a lake is always still unless something disturbs it. In stillness, the lake more accurately reflects the reality of the environment. Confusion and distortion arise only when we are too busy or wordy to listen. We know that muddy water becomes clear only when allowed to remain still. All powerful words and phrases are brief. We only weaken the power of our words with excess speech. Taoist, Chuang Tzu, writes, "Still water is like glass...it is a perfect level. The heart of the wise man is tranquil, it is the mirror of heaven and earth. Emptiness, stillness, tranquility, silence, non-action...this is the perfect Tao. Wise men here find their resting place"
We don't have to choose between activity and stillness. Life is never exclusively one or the other. We need to create a balance in our lives between action and stillness, between speaking and keeping quiet. In the biblical book of Ecclesiastes there is written: "There is a time for every purpose under heaven, a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak..." Balance is the key.
Since the Chinese meaning of "busy" is accurate, perhaps the counter balance to killing the heart is found in what Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century Christian mystic, said when he wrote, "nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness." Instead of "busyness," may your holidays be filled with God-like stillness. Enjoy!
Dr. Thomas is a licensed psychologist, author, speaker, and life coach. He serves on the faculty of the International University of Professional Studies. He recently co-authored (with Patrick Williams) the book: "Total Life Coaching: 50+ Life Lessons, Skills and Techniques for Enhancing Your Practice...and Your Life!" (W.W. Norton 2005) It is available at your local bookstore or on Amazon.com.