On being so busy

There are many conversations which are common in the free world but never happen in prison. One is when someone talks about how they’ve been “so busy lately, absolutely slammed.” There is less work to be pursued when the going pay rate is around $0.17 per hour. You can only exercise so many hours a day. “Grocery shopping” at commissary takes 30 minutes once per week and there are roughly zero hours spent commuting. There is plenty of down time in prison, but what truly keeps everyone so busy in the outside world?

Most American’s are in an over-stimulated environment of text messages, social media feeds, slack notifications and hectic paces. It’s almost as if being busy is a badge of honor, a self-bestowed sign of importance. When I was in sales I found myself staying busy for a few reasons. A sales person is supposed to be busy. Making calls, working with existing accounts, finding new leads. If I wasn’t having a packed day I felt a tinge of guilt. I’d find ways to stay occupied and at times that worked alright. I found new clients or learned of unresolved issues with existing customers. Other days, I arrived back home and wondered what I actually achieved, outside of avoiding the feelings associated with the thought “I wasn’t productive enough today.” Clearly, if I’m busy work must be going well, I’m doing well, and everything in life is great. Easy peasy. On the flip side, I think all the activity and movement can cover up something.

When we’re busy we’re distracted. Distraction is safe, it’s easy. An unoccupied mind, for some, allows thoughts about concerns and insecurities to come rushing in like bats to a cave before sunrise. A wandering mind can bring uncomfortable unanswered questions to the surface. Here, no one is busy. I had to step out of normal life to have a reasonable perspective on this facet of it. The time away from work allowed me to look back and see it for what’s important as well as what I was foolish about.

I recently read that people enjoy activities such as vigorous exercise, challenging tasks or even a difficult puzzle because of the flow state they put you in. Which means you’re focused and your mind is quiet. When you’re in those moments your mind doesn’t wander and with that often comes a sense of peace. Meditation is about also quieting your mind but when people are new to meditating, or even when they are moderately experienced, a part of the practice is removing thoughts from one’s consciousness – thinking nothing, or thinking about not thinking so that you can have no thoughts. No thinking of not thinking allowed, because that’s thinking.

Irony aside, it’s a thought one may attend to but achieve the same goal of meditation with not less effort, only a different type. For some, that effort is staying busy. It’s the antithesis of meditation yet in some ways yields the same result. Only for so long.

Flow state activities, meditation, staying needlessly busy. They all keep the more challenging thoughts about life at bay. Being here, there was no running from contemplation and wallowing in all sorts of existential questions but once you’re forced to face them down enough and get trampled you build up scabs. I don’t like the idea of staying busy in prison to make time pass. I learned to slow down, but I also had to because that’s what quarantine/isolation/lockdowns do to you – it’s simply not possible to busy your way through a day with so little external stimulation and so much restriction. The glorious part is breaking through, because while my days are productive it’s out of an easy flow to them, not a fear-induced grinding plan to stay occupied in such a way that I somehow magically disregard my surroundings. I know where I’m at.

Not avoiding that is far more peaceful than forcibly attempting to make it disappear. I achieve a lot, just in a different way. A more “I’m present for all these moments even though they may not be the one’s I would have chosen as my life neared 40” kind of way. That’s a way, right?

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