One of the most uncomfortable experiences in contemporary life seems to be waiting: we'll do practically anything to avoid it. From the small screens of our smart phones and internet browsers we expect immediate connection to what's going on with our work, friends, blogs, social media pages, internet dating messages and on; a people hooked by the promise of being-in-the-loop, always available, tuned in, tied up. No wonder there's a coffee shop selling 20 ounce acetlycholine blast offs on every corner: Who has time to slow down?
We're constantly fine-tuning and upgrading life towards ever greater efficiency, where down time means something's gone awry and free time is a sign of indulgence. Behavior that a generation earlier was symptomatic of hypomania--a constant flow of shifting desires, overly ambitious plans, unlikely leaps from one conversational topic to another, easily distracted and constantly on the move--is now the hallmark of the creative, 'out-of-the-box' wunderkind.
It boils down to a fear of the pause button of life being hit, an open period spent lingering or on standby, a chasm between the accomplishment of one task or another. The 21st century marketing consultant or social media guru is constantly productive, checking in. Observe people waiting for a delayed subway today: the outrage at inconvenience is palpable, especially if the there's no WiFi signal. What could be worse than just standing there, doing nothing?
And so we fill up delays and down times with anything to make us feel engaged and productive, checking our tweets for a laugh or posting an update of our status, namely how much we dislike waiting for subways, or Facebook "selfies" or finally, as a matter of last recourse, getting a chance to catch up with the news of the world. But even that is better than, well, simple aliveness, the experience of breathing, standing, waiting, being.
And what's really terrifying is that at this very minute there's probably a hundred thousand start ups producing a million smart phone apps for next years WiFi watches that will schedule us us to the minute and cram each minute of the day to the point of no return, so that every moment of life is monitoring everything we've accomplished and still how much more we could get crossed off our lists.
We work longer hours, with far less holiday and vacation time than our first world, european counterparts. We actually work hours per year more than medieval peasants. And yet the gadget and gizmo adds tell us we should be more efficient, its time to really get down to business, now's the time to start churning out more content or fine tuning our brand. If love, security and acceptance is to be found anywhere, the underlying message goes, its from achieving this or accomplishing that.
And yet in the rush of it all, no one seems to notice that our internet sites have the shelf-life of yogurt and no matter how much we clear off our desks, by tomorrow the email inbox is full again.
People come here me speak about what the Buddha taught, and what they really want to hear is how to stay on the treadmill of busyness without experiencing debilitating anxiety, which is akin to postponing swimming lessons until one is actually drowning. After all, we can't experience freedom if we're chained to anything: even if its a smart phone.
If we're not ready to put down our devices for even a few minutes between one meeting and the next, allowing our brains to sit on idle for respite, we're running our engines into the ground (but we can't, of course, trade them in every three years). In the land where keeping busy is considered beneficial and boredom--otherwise known as feeling the basic condition of human existence--is a considered a failure and worthy of pharmaceutical treatment, productivity no longer the means to an end, but the end in itself, the goal being: Stay Busy.
So one of the most radical, countercultural things we can do is actually just sit there and relax without feeling we're missed out or simply being lax. Rather than avoiding stillness with one more tweet we can relax into empty time; rather than avoiding silence via endless chatter we can ease into its expanse. In the space of a minute we can experience a state of rest an ease that a lifetime of effort can't produce. Taking a break can feel disconcerting, even odd and self-indulgent, like digging a hole in life without filling it. But in that space there's something far more precious and rare than anything we'll ever find on a screen, and it doesn't come with a monthly surcharge.