Not So Busy: A Reflection on Living Wisely

The following reflection originally appeared in the occasional newsletter I sent out on November 30th, 2023.


*** Feel free to just read the bold words and skip the rest *** 



Four years after I disrobed as a monk, I returned to Myanmar for a few weeks to again practice with my teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya.  At one point, I had a 1-on-1 meeting with him and asked for some guidance on teaching.

In typical fashion, he sat quietly for a few moments with a still look on his face before saying, “not so busy,” and took another pause before simply adding, “being too busy is no good.”

As I told him nothing of my schedule, his words were essentially a commentary on modern society, where everyone is always going around doing so many darn things.  He went on to say some things more specific to teaching, but I found it fascinating that his first response had to do with scheduling.

I think this probably resonates for most modern people.

As an example, I all the time hear people say, “I’m so busy,” but I’ve never heard anyone follow that with, “I love it so much! I wish I had more things to do. Any suggestions for how I could fit in a few more activities into my already overflowing calendar?”  Instead, the “I’m so busy” is usually accompanied by a sense of tiredness, overwhelm, and some part of them desiring a little more calm and white space.

This is to say that on some intuitive level, his advice is pretty straightforward — have too many things going on and you’ll be stressed out.  You’ll likewise not be able to operate as effectively in your life, whether that’s dharma teaching, raising a family, thriving in your job, maintaining a healthy body & mind, or any number of other things.

However, the more I’ve contemplated what it is to be “busy,” it feels a little more nuanced and complex than at first glance.

As a playful definition, I’d propose that being “busy” really means “more priorities than can be accomplished while maintaining inner peace.”

The rest of this reflection is a deep dive into that definition.



The Part About The Buddha Way

The basic Buddhist roadmap is found in The Noble Eightfold Path.

Step one of the roadmap is “Wise View,” which basically says that the deepest happiness is not found through having rich and dynamic experiences, coming into the ideal job/partner/life-situation, or satisfying all of our desires, but rather by leaning into contentment and letting go.  As the great master Ajahn Chah says, “let go a little, get a little peace; let go a lot, get a lot of peace; let go completely, get complete peace.”

Starting with that preliminary understanding, the roadmap then launches into “Wise Intention,” which lists a few key aspirations that lead to the deepest happiness, but the first on the list is renunciation.  At initial glance, this can be a bit eyebrow-raising.  In English, the word renunciation often has connotations of repression or forcing ourselves to do something unnatural.  It can seem out of step with modern life, which tells us to acquire, connect, experience, and expand.

However, while the English word renunciation has strong connotations with letting go, the Buddhist/Pāli language word nekkhamma, which is usually translated as renunciation, would more literally be translated as going forth.

In other words, in the Buddha’s time, the emphasis with renunciation is not on the thing being let go of, but rather on the thing being gained.

So it’s not that we let go of candy bars and soda out of some harsh abstinence, but rather we go forth into healthier living.  It’s not that we let go of Netflix, Facebook, television, and hours of screen time, but we go forth into reading, exercise, meditation, and more nourishing forms of relaxation.

More to the point, it’s not that we let go of filling our schedule to the brim, but rather we go forth into peace, inner freedom, and a life deeply aligned with our priorities.  In one of the Buddha’s more famous quotes, which could itself be a poetic definition of renunciation, he said, “one is wise who lets go of a lesser happiness in pursuit of one which is greater.”

Adding all this together, the intention of renunciation is really about letting go of the things in our life that aren’t deeply fulfilling, so as to make space for what is. It’s about being intentional with our lives.  It’s a direct application of our understanding of what time well spent really means.



What Is Busyness, Anyways?

As I described in the first section, in conventional speech, busy usually means, “I have a lot of things going on.”

However, the deeper pointer of Buddhist practice is to cultivate a profound peace within; and, in proportion to your realization, to bring that peace into the world.  Curiously, it’s possible that someone could have very few things in their calendar, but have a very busy, unpeaceful mind.  It’s also possible to have lots of things going on, but still have a very peaceful, calm, and quiet mind.

In turn, the idea isn’t so much to do nothing, as it is to be really intentional with your something.

And yet, unless you are a great master, chances are that a busy schedule leads to a busy, unsettled mind.  An old joke says, “everyone should meditate for 30 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy, then you should meditate for 60.”

We really have to be honest with ourselves.  How much can we actually take on and maintain a spacious, calm inner reality?

Our task is to find the right balance of outer and inner renunciation.  Externally, cutting out the fluff, whittling down our true priorities, and clearing our schedule to the degree that allows actual spaciousness.  Internally, practicing meditation in order that we know how to release all the random & obsessive thinking, emoting, and reacting.



Full vs. Busy

In chapters of my life when I’ve felt really “busy,” the central marker is a feeling of unsustainabilty.  As in, “if my life stayed like this for a long period of time, I would definitely burn out.”

In contrast, there are chapters of my life where I’ve felt really “full,” which still features a lot going on, but it feels sustainable.  There is some alchemy of how the things I’m doing are hitting my essential priorities, and I’m also able to do them in a way that feels peaceful within.

More concretely, my top priorities these days are my family life, my spiritual practice / self-care, my work/teaching, and managing my essential yet not-so-glamorous life details (like getting my oil changed, filing my taxes, or cleaning my kitchen).

In turn, in full-mode, I’m generally able to hit all those buckets every day without stress, tension, or hurrying.  It’s not more priorities than can be accomplished while maintaining inner peace.

Of course, in the span of a week, there will still be plenty of pockets to fit in other priorities, but not enough pockets to do it all.  I definitely have to say a lot of no’s — to other people, to various hobbies and events, to lower priority to-do list items, and so on.

Sometimes all these “no’s” can bring sadness — I can’t actually maintain all the relationships and hobbies in a way that I’d like to; there’s just not time. However, I’ve made a conscious decision to renounce busyness, leaving enough space to make sure I get in the most important things first, and then allocate the time left over for the rest.

In contrast, what I’ve done in the past, and what a lot of people do, is start not with wise view, but rather with desire.  They say a lot of “yes’es,” only to feel burnt out and struggle with how to reel it back.  The challenge is that they like all the things so much that they don’t know where to hit the “let go button,” as the thought of stepping back from anything brings sadness, anxiety and/or depression.

Add it all together and they have more priorities than can be done while maintaining inner peace.

If you notice yourself feeling busy, the pointer is to deeply contemplate what you consider to be “the good life.”  Is it doing all the things, seeing all the people, and going all the places?  Is it a deeply peaceful & loving inner life that’s sustainably allocated outwards?  Is it something else?  There’s a reason the Buddha put Wise View as the first step on the roadmap to well-being.

In this section, I don’t mean to say that we should all strive for “full” — the idea isn’t to push our activity level to the absolute max we can get away with before feeling unsustainable.  The idea is just not so busy.  Maybe sometimes that’s full; maybe sometimes it’s not so full.



The Seasons Of Life

I’ve found for myself that it’s not like I perfectly dial in the right activity level all the time.  Sometimes I go a little past “full” into busy.  Sometimes I go a bit under it and have lots of spaciousness.  Sometimes I’m right on the line.  It’s an ongoing exploration.

Likewise, there is a certain degree of activity that touches us for a season.  People come for a visit.  Work ramps up during “busy season.”  Various roadblocks come our way, like health issues, car problems, getting audited, moving, caretaking, and so on.  We take on a training program, like a 6-week course, a 2-year graduate degree, or we raise little children.

As I mentioned earlier, the last month has been an especially “busy” and unsustainable chapter for me. While a few things are coalescing, the big one is that my partner, her sister, and myself have entered into the trying-to-buy-a-home process.  It features way more meetings, research, phone calls, driving around town, and paperwork than I could have imagined.  Of course, this is temporary; it’s not sustainable, but it’s not meant to be.

In any case, all these sorts of fluctuations are normal and to be expected — seasons of busyness are part of modern life.

However, if it seems like it’s not so much “busy season” as it is “busy life,” as in month after month or year after year, it’s just one thing after another, I start to raise an eyebrow. Usually, this comes back to too many priorities.

Amidst it all, the basic pointer is to just keep paying attention. The more you mindfully observe what it’s like in each mode, your intuitive wisdom picks up more data that steers you, little by little, into a life of more reliable balance.



Screen Time And Busyness

For most people, one of the easiest ways to minimize their busyness is to dramatically reduce their low-value screen time.

For example, people often tell me they don’t have time to meditate, or perhaps they can only spare a few minutes.  However, they somehow have time to spend an hour on social media, Netflix, Youtube, reading news, checking their email for the 30th time, playing internet games, and on and on.

I completely get that there is a pleasant passiveness to screen time that feels relaxing, but it isn’t nearly as rejuvenating as something like meditating, going for a walk, intently listening to music, or any number of other non-screen activities.

Likewise, people usually never report that these activities are priorities for them — so then why spend time on them?  Of course, it’s basically just addiction, and addictions are hard to break.  Even for me, it’s hard.  But it’s also possible.

Maybe as the cherry on top, notice how low-value screen time may be relaxing on one level, but it also tends to scatter our mind.  If you’re not sure about that, look very closely at the state of your mind after twenty minutes of scrolling vs. after twenty minutes doing one of the above tasks.  Which is more relaxed and rejuvenated?



How To Actually Be Less Busy?

I have a lot of faith that when people really understand and internalize the value of not so busy, they simply make it happen.  It’s a more wonderful way of living, where our schedule is guided by peace within and loving action in our life.

In turn, I’m tempted to leave out the “how-to” altogether, but as some brief notes, the following practices will be helpful on your journey into not so busy:

  • Wise reflection.  Taking some time to consider what your highest priorities actually are; as well as a way to live them that feels peaceful and sustainable.
  • Paying close attention. How does it actually feel to be busy?  How does it feel when you have more white space?
  • Boundary setting. People will always want you to do more.  Social pressure is real.  So is the inner pressure to fulfill all your whims.  You have to be comfortable with saying no; it’s the only way to be all-in on your yes’es.
  • Renounce low-value screen time.
  • Meditate a lot.

I’m sure there are many other useful tactics, but again, if you really get it, you’ll find a way.




In search of great wisdom on teaching Buddhism, among other things, I flew halfway around the globe only for the master to tell me to be not so busy.

We can make this topic complex, but it’s also helpful to simplify — get in touch with your priorities, cut out the fluff, and commit yourself to only taking on as much as you can do sustainably and at peace within.  As you inevitably undershoot and overshoot, just keep paying attention, learning, and self-correcting.

If even this feels too complicated, just clear your darn schedule and meditate a lot!  A deeply peaceful and purposeful life is possible!!