At the Heart of Being Busy

There’s a movement I came across called heart-based living. I found it on a website called Heartmath. The Heartmath organization says it’s “dedicated to enhance people’s well being by helping them live a heart-directed life.” Though I don’t exactly understand it, I thought this was an interesting way to talk about wellness and reducing stress. There’s no mention of the usual expert recommendations of better managing time, getting organized, thinking positively or practicing mental relaxation techniques.

The Chinese character for busy: heart + dead
The Chinese character for busy

Stress is our response to demands that we perceive as outweighing our capabilities to manage them. As I’ve written, a little bit of stress keeps us challenged and in flow, by causing us to increase our skills to meet demand. But when these demands overwhelm us, we experience worry, tension and frustration. All of this can be linked to a perceived lack of resources: not enough time, money, skill, support, control. So how do we respond? By trying to do more with less; by working harder, by exerting more effort, by struggling to control. This is called being busy, and it’s exhausting. Even though we talk about being busy as if it were a badge of honor, confusing activity with accomplishment. Somehow we assume being busy means that we are engaged in something important or meaningful, when often we’re not.

It’s like the exhaustion we feel when we first learn to swim, because our struggling is driven by fear for our survival. Though we exert a great deal of effort, we don’t really go anywhere. We feel panic and thrash around just trying to keep our head above water.

When I think about being busy, the Chinese character for “busy” often comes to mind. It’s made of two components: a symbol for heart and a symbol for dead. Busy = heart+dead. You can read a lot into this. First, being constantly busy is stressful and does put a strain on our heart. Second, the heart is our emotional center. When we are busy, we turn off our emotions and focus on the task at hand. The more we do this, the more accustomed we become to ignoring our emotions, which are a key feedback mechanism in our decision making. Finally, when we are busy, the connection to those people and things closest to our heart dies.

For all our planning, organizing, implementing, directing, controlling, reporting and checking, it’s important to remember these are the things that keep us busy. Busy is death to our heart. It is the response to stress that keeps us out of flow and thrashing around, while we wonder why we’re so tired all the time?