Beyond “Active Laziness”

June 11, 2015 3 Comments

“One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call ‘crazy-busy.'”

Brene Brown


Image from Alan O’Rourke

My friend Adam Pattantyus recently reminded me of the concept of “active laziness”, attributed specifically to the writings of Sogyal Rinpoche. This reminder came at a very opportune moment. It is no secret that there is, at least in a number of circles in which we at IISC operate, a burgeoning culture of busy-ness. Many people seem increasingly pressed for time, and move between the temporal equivalent of sound bites throughout their days. The ensuing “frenzy” and exhaustion, while perhaps seen as necessary (or by some as a status symbol), is also being called out for its dysfunctional nature, including how it detracts from efforts to create positive and lasting social change. This is what Rinpoche calls “active laziness,” the compulsive cramming of our lives with activity that leaves no time to confront “real issues.”

Let me be clear, this is not to deny that there are indeed lives on the line and an urgency around many current day challenges. This is not an invitation to shirk responsibility. That said, it seems that there is less and less nuance around what truly constitutes “a crisis.” A friend of an IISC colleague who is an emergency room physician will often help her achieve some helpful perspective on this. “So if you don’t respond to that right now, is anyone going to die?”

Life thrives not simply on action, but on rest, on reflection and renewal. The fields need fallow time. For everything there is a season. And yet . . . there is often an impatience in many of the rooms in which I find myself, a toe-tapping, knee jiggling urge to “do something,” as if that is better than doing what is otherwise perceived as “nothing.’ It feels like this needs some closer examination.

For example, when I am in a space with fellow white people talking about the reality of structural racism, there is a predictable agitation on the part of some. “So what can I do?” may be asked with wrung hands. Increasingly, my response is to ask people to consider not rushing to action in a way they might typically feel inclined, but rather to practice stepping back, getting off stage, and taking on a deeper learning stance. Not to say this is easy (speaking from my own personal experience), but the rush of urgency in these cases can by-pass important deeper analysis and a leaning towards listening and following. There is real discipline in sitting with the reality of injustice. As my colleague Cynthia Silva Parker points out, “Rushing to solution and by-passing the problem conversation can be a privileged move.” In other words, “active laziness” can, unknowingly or not, perpetuate white (and other forms of) privilege. 


There is also an important lesson about getting beyond “active laziness” in the practice of Permaculture. While the tendency of mainstream (industrial) agriculture is to constantly turn over soil and uproot weeds, which can exhaust natural resources and lead to toxic interventions, Permaculture asks that people first observe. “Maximum observation, minimum intervention.” Or as Aldo Leopold once said, having learned about some of the devastating consequences of rushing to action,

“Think like a mountain.”

Get to know the land, the living system already in place. Follow its wisdom. This is nearly impossible to do when everything is an emergency or a blur, when there is a constant demand for productivity. In The One Straw RevolutionMasanobu Fukuoka teaches that often what is most sustainable is slowing effort. This can be quite counter-cultural, and at the same time promoting of a more vital and vibrant culture.

A helpful practice is discernment, which means to sift apart. To take time to see each thing as it is, and how it is connected. This can begin with cultivating mindfulness, including looking at how we move through our days. Helpful tools in this respect include the “personal ecology” time management toolkit from the Social Transformation Project and keeping a biotime diary (see permacultarist Looby MacNamara’s work).

At a collective level, we might pay closer attention to the dynamics of social velocity. Living systems science teaches us that it is not the absolute amount of a resource that matters, but its speed through the system. The velocity of information, conversation and relationship-building in social systems or networks matters, determining degree of absorption, dissemination, understanding, alignment, trust, resilience, innovation. All of this would seem to have short and long-term implications for both justice and sustainability, and invites strategic consideration of the speed with which we move together in pursuit of change.

What are your thoughts about “active laziness” and your work for social change?


  • Curtis – this is so on point, so important. I am convinced that this is a key leverage point in the transformation that we seek. It is hard to understand the structural nature of this momentum that keeps us busier and busier. But it is a fundamental vestige of the industrial age that we are called to leave behind.

    Right now I am at home for less than a week between to big international facilitation journeys. It took significant discipline to give myself time to replenish in light of significant obligations and expectations. But I feel so rewarded for my choice, and much more present for the work ahead.

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