What comes to mind when you hear the word “lazy”?
For most of us, there is some connotation of neglecting our worldly duties while lounging in a slovenly pile, soft and directionless. Or at least, the term carries a negative weight in an era geared towards accomplishment and the glorification of “busy”.
In the Zen Buddhist tradition as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, laziness is not only valuable: it is a potent teacher. Brother Fulfillment, resident Monastic at Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, NY, explains:
“I think one of the hardest things for us to get around is the idea that there’s something bad about being lazy. I think we can be lazy and do things that are not good for us, like drinking beer seems kind of lazy, but we can also drink a cup of tea in the same spirit of being lazy and not putting something in front of ourselves that we must do. I think our goal with the term, (the way we use the word lazy) is to reinvent the word a little bit for the people, so that we can bring another connotation into it… True laziness means this capacity to let things be, to accept things and not to put something in front of ourselves that we need to do to be happy.”
Not to put something in front of ourselves that we need to do to be happy. This statement lands in direct contrast to what has become the dominant perspective in the Western world: in order to ‘be happy’ and accomplished we make to-do lists (even though they may include things like meditation), check them off, and take our moment of satisfaction in seeing ourselves as “accomplished”. But as the saying goes, one can’t push the river. In the Zen tradition, monastics see it like this: “Usually when people say you’re lazy, in fact, what they’re saying is you don’t care. But in my term of laziness we can care a lot and still take our time. Sometimes if we try to push it too much... we can break it. It’s a little bit like the way a tree grows or a plant grows, it’s kind of lazy, it goes the easy way. It finds the way that’s easy to get to the sunlight, it finds a way that’s natural, that’s harmonious. These are all in the spirit of laziness; harmonious, natural, with ease,” reflects Brother Fulfillment.
There is a simple elegance to this perspective on laziness. Rather than viewing it as a lack of doing it is the simplicity of being absolutely present and welcoming of what one is actually doing, minus a constraining sense of obligation. Just as it is with children.
“We’re talking about flow,” Brother Fulfillment says:
“If you can imagine a child playing with their toys, there is no time, no ‘I need to play like this and later I will get this happiness’, what they’re doing now is it. I think that’s also a big part of mindfulness that sometimes it doesn’t come through with people because we’re a very driven society and goal oriented and we create projects for ourselves. We often try to counteract that in this particular tradition. Our teachers try to infuse a little bit of slowing down, stopping and laziness as an antidote to the busyness, the drive and the goals. It’s more about transforming the spirit of what you already do. Mindfulness is a path that you can follow. it's about the way you do what you already do, and not one more thing to do. ‘OK I have to go and meditate now so I can be happy later’.”
For the Monastics at Blue Cliff Monastery, returning to this flow is the daily practice of living. So-called lazy days become the model for approaching every day, and visitors are invited to drop in to a similar frame of mind: what if, just for a day, the to-do lists get left behind and everything is just… what is in the moment?
It’s a slow process to retrain the mind, says Brother Fulfillment. “None of us is perfect. We all have habits. And we can create new habits by paying attention, being mindful of what happens, and then learning to make new choices if we want to. I think that being aware of how we feel throughout the process of habitual action is powerful. It is paying attention to our feelings and emotions. When we can get deeply in touch with them and accept them - that’s what will guide us to more wholesome patterns.”
Just practice mindfulness. With patience, humility, and openness. “To be able to say that actually, today is a lazy day but I’m noticing that I really want to do this and this and I’m feeling quite driven. Everything is acceptable as long as we make space for it. We can observe and embrace it and then we don’t have to make battle with it.”
And that's the importance of laziness.