The following has been excerpted from spiritual teacher Joseph Emet’s latest book, Finding the Blue Sky, in which he writes about the connections between ancient Buddhist wisdom and modern positive psychology, hypothesizing how the two can be combined to help us find happiness.
Laziness—sin or virtue?
Laziness is one of the seven deadly sins of Catholicism, and it is also viewed negatively in other traditions, including Buddhism. But let’s look a little closer.
At the Jewish General Hospital, one of the large university hospitals in Montreal, the elevators are programmed to stop on every floor on Saturdays. That is because if you are Jewish, you are not supposed to do anything that feels like work on the Sabbath, and even pushing an elevator button is considered “work.” Observing the Sabbath is a sort of mindful laziness.
A similar current runs through Catholicism. When I was younger, all the stores—including grocery stores—were closed on Sundays in Québec, a largely Catholic part of Canada. Sunday was the Lord’s Day. Even mowing the lawn on Sunday was looked down upon.
Thich Nhat Hanh has adopted a similar tradition at Plum Village in France. I was with Helen, a friend, when she called Plum Village to make a reservation for a retreat. There were cascades of laughter at the other end of the line. “We are having a lazy day today, please call back tomorrow,” was the short answer Helen got before the line went silent. Indeed, Thich Nhat Hanh is not shy about describing himself as a “lazy monk.”
In answering a question, Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “In our society, we’re inclined to see doing nothing as something negative, even evil. But when we lose ourselves in activities we diminish our quality of being. We do ourselves a disservice. It’s important to preserve ourselves, to maintain our freshness and good humour, our joy and compassion.”
He himself has been a hard worker, but his work has been an expression of his being. His work is undertaken out of choice, and not obligation. And it is relieved by periods of rest and relaxation. Many years ago, I met an elderly Vietnamese monk who had been Thich Nhat Hanh’s roommate while he was working on Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha. He described a fluent and nonstop clatter of the typewriter day after day. However, Thich Nhat Hanh also recounts times from his novice days when he used to sneak away to a tree house he had constructed and read a novel. When he sometimes sounds as if he is promoting laziness, he is actually promoting a balanced life, because he knows that the “work/rest” balance has been largely lost in our society.
Just like there is a place for voluntary stress, there is a place for voluntary laziness in a happy life. People who are “constitutionally” happy instinctively make room for both. The rest of us need to learn to do this if we are not going to join the legions who suffer from exhaustion and burnout. Voluntary laziness is not procrastination. It is not an inability to get to work. It is an ability to take a break. Meditation can help us to enjoy the calm inside, and to listen to the silence of the mind.
“The basic condition for us to be able to hear the call of beauty and respond to it is silence. If we don’t have silence in ourselves—if our mind, our body, are full of noise—then we can’t hear beauty’s call,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh. Beauty is everywhere around us, in the smiles of people, in the fragrance and colours of flowers, in the blue sky and in the white clouds that sail across it. Sometimes people describe to me the difficulty of maintaining a blank state of mind in meditation. That seems to me like a negatively conceived effort. Instead, fill your heart and mind with beauty. Visualize a flower. Visualize that flower in your heart. Visualize a whole garden in your heart, blooming with roses of love, irises of gratitude, and dandelions of freshness. Enjoy your garden, just like you would enjoy an actual flowering garden.
Read more on this topic in FROM DOING TO BEING: Do idle hands really make the devil’s work?»