June 10, 2009 5 Comments

Two weeks ago, some of us at IISC had the great fortune of participating in a WTC training called Leading From Spirit. During the training, we had some great conversations about busyness – the ways in which we, as social change activists, process designers and facilitators, find ourselves sometimes being overly busy, taking on too many responsibilities and running from one thing to the next. Some of us mentioned noticing that our ability to do things well sometimes seems impaired by this overly busy approach. (I would add that this is not something confined to those of us working for social justice and social change – but has a special twist when it’s combined with this work, which so requires us to bring forth our best selves.)

I was reminded of a quote by Thomas Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966, Doubleday, p. 73):

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

With that conversation and this quote in mind, I spent this past weekend at the Omega Institute in an amazing meditation retreat with Pema Chodron (and could share about that as well). In the course of the retreat, some of us worked with Hope Martin, a practitioner of the Alexander Technique, on the way we sit in sitting meditation. Much of what she does is work with you on the habits you’ve developed to interfere with your body’s natural posture so that you can begin to let go of them. As she came to me, she showed me ways that I was over-working in sitting meditation (no surprise!). She talked repeatedly about the need to “let go of extra work.” So these seemingly unrelated conversations and activities came into sharp focus and created fertile ground for exploration! The question I am exploring today, and would ask all of us, is this: In what ways am I over-working?


  • Santiago says:

    Great post Linda, really enjoyed it. And a fantastic Merton quote. He was really on to something. And I agree, we do WAY too much. Our desires our infinite, while our abilities and resources are finite.

  • Michael says:

    It brings me satisfaction that you had this conversation with your peers. Often, we too easily accept busyness without really inquiring as to how subversive it is to our own health. Reflecting on Merton’s quote, I would agree that it is a form of violence against oneself.

    To add to your question, in what ways am I under-working? I believe that spiritual poverty is often far more destructive that material poverty, especially as it exists in the United States. To think about your comments adds depth to my own questioning about spiritual poverty in contemporary society.

    Thank you for your thoughts.

  • Curtis says:

    I am reminded of the nurse’s words to Emily during the birth of our girls last week – “Let it be, let it be.” The whole idea was that she needed to work with what was naturally occurring in her body with respect to the contractions. Sometimes I think our overwork as social change agents is a violation of natural rhythms and order, though because we are working on behalf of someone or something else, that it is difficult to see or admit. Over-work might also be a result of not seeing the bigger picture of what needs to happen to make change.

  • Linda says:

    Great. Yes. And I’m now thinking of Rodney Yee’s words at the beginning of a yoga workshop I did with him a few years ago. He said that the important thing to do in any situation is to show up and relax.

  • I always appreciate the wisdom of this Thomas Merton quote in restoring balance in all aspects of our lives and remembering to treat ourselves with compassion and kindness through our finite earth walk.

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