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March 21, 2023

Too Busy?

By Sally Kempton

I’ve dropped in on a yoga class with a popular teacher in Los Angeles. The room is full of slim blonde yoginis, moving like synchronized swimmers through a vinyasa series. Fifteen minutes into the sequence, the teacher calls the class together to demonstrate some subtle alignment details. Half the women in the room move forward. The rest turn on their cell phones and begin checking their messages.

Those women could have been doctors on call, or moms with young kids at home. But I suspect that they were victims, like so many people I know, of the Internal Busyness Syndrome—the breathless, stress-addicted feeling of having way too much to do and way too little time to do it. Internal Busyness, a complex of internally generated thoughts, beliefs, and bodily responses, can certainly be triggered by an especially busy day or a lot of competing demands. But unlike External Busyness, which is the more straightforward but often unavoidable state of having a lot to do, Internal Busyness doesn’t go away when your tasks are done. That’s why it’s so insidious. External busyness—the admittedly challenging pressure that comes from juggling a demanding job, children, financial worries, health issues, and all the tasks of running your life and household—can be managed. It can even be a yogic pathway, if you know how to practice with it. Internal Busyness, however, manages you.

So when people tell me “I’m so busy I can’t find time to practice,” I always ask them which kind of busyness they’re distressed by: the External or the Internal. One tip-off that you might be suffering from the Internal Busyness Syndrome is this: When you don’t have an immediate task that has to be done, when you have a moment that could be devoted to taking a few quiet breaths or just spacing out, do you ever find yourself still spinning internally, wondering what you’ve forgotten to take care of? That’s Internal Busyness.

The paradox of busyness is a bit like the paradox of stress. On the one hand, human beings are built to be busy. We’re hardwired for action; when it comes to developing our minds, muscles, or life-skills, it’s use them or lose them. To live is to act, as Krishna crisply and unequivocally reminds his disciple Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Besides, there’s a lot of bliss in using our skills. Given the choice, most of us would opt for a full life, even at the cost of having too much to do. Happiness, so elusive when we’re pursuing it, has a way of sneaking up on us when we’re fully absorbed in doing something, even if it’s just washing the dishes.

But even an extrovert who loves the game of living knows the dark, compulsive side of busyness. You feel overwhelmed, driven by your schedule, yet afraid of what will happen if you let something go. You run on caffeine and adrenaline, get impatient with your kids and then feel guilty, dread passing a friend on the street because you know you’ll have to stop and talk to him. Feeling really busy or in a hurry can make you so task-focused that you ignore others’ needs as well as your own. In the famous Princeton Good Samaritan study, nearly all the students observed walked right past a man apparently having a heart attack on the sidewalk. When interviewed later, most of the people who didn’t stop gave as their reason that they were in a hurry to get to a class. Being busy overrode their humanity every time.

Busyness as a Time Bind

That study offered an important clue about Internal Busyness. It’s rooted in our attitude toward time. When the pace of work is intensified, as it is in modern industrial and post-industrial societies, we come to see time as a finite, ever-dwindling commodity, like our oil reserves. Because time feels scarce, we try to get more out of our minutes, to squeeze the maximum productivity out of every minute of time.

That’s one reason why when you feel busy, you tend to spend less time on activities like meditation, contemplation, singing—all things that can’t be made to increase their “yield” on the minutes we spend on them. Even as spiritual practitioners, supposedly people with our eyes trained on the inner depths of life, we often find ourselves living by the basic capitalist assumption that more is better, and that what we do needs to yield a quantifiable result.

How many of us got more interested in meditation when we began reading about the University of Wisconsin MRI studies that showed that people who meditate can increase activity in the happiness section of the brain? We expect our practice to give us something measurable, make us more desirable, give us more career leverage, or at least rejuvenate us so that we can go out and work more. Our spiritual practice becomes valued for its usefulness in our external lives, rather than the source of peace and well being that it was intended to be. This assumption—that if we’re going to spend time on something it needs to produce a measurable yield—is one root of Internal Busyness.

Practice Breaks

One powerful ways you can work with your tendencies to internal busyness is to give yourself periodic 2- to 3-minute pauses during your day. Whether sitting at the desk, doing the laundry, even driving, play with a yogic practice like the ones that follow—just for its own sake! The idea is to do it without expecting results. (Of course, there will be a result—you’ll feel better.)

Practice Break: Anti-Rushing

This practice releases the compulsion that often arises when you’re in a hurry. Try it now, then practice it the next time you feel yourself rushing.

Stop. Stand or sit totally still for one full minute. First, say to yourself, “I have all the time in the world.” Then, bring to mind the image of a Buddha in meditation. Hold the thought of that Buddha in your mind while you breathe deeply and slowly five times. Feel free to keep that image in your mind as you continue on your way.

Busyness as an Addiction

My friend Glenn is like one of the eight-armed Hindu goddesses: a brilliant multitasker. She can do five or six things more or less simultaneously: run a meeting, make her kid’s dentist appointment, talk to a friend on the phone. For years, she claimed that she did it all in a state of Flow—that peak action state where everything seems to be happening on its own as you move effortlessly from one activity to another. At one point, though, she realized that she had actually become addicted to the multitasking high.

Activity addiction is like any other addiction; as it progresses you need more and more activity to get the original glow. So you add one more item to your schedule, and another. People ask you to join a committee and you can’t resist. You hear about a conference or a project and angle to get on it. You add clients, or classes. You speed date, go to two or three parties each weekend, sign your kid up for after-school activities six days a week. Pretty soon, you’re emailing while you talk on the phone, reading while you’re eating or doing asana practice, and helping your child with her homework while watching the news and feeding the dog. It’s not just that you’re distracted. Being busy has become an addiction.

Busyness and Self-importance

Another reason we keep ourselves busy is because it helps us feel needed, competent, even important. But there’s a balance issue here. While it’s normal to derive healthy self-esteem from being engaged with our world, the ego’s addiction to busyness has at its core a terror of its own emptiness. The ego feels, “If I’m busy, that means I exist. I’m worthwhile. I’m wanted.” When you’re active and engaged, you feel like part of the rhythm of life. Other busy people find you worthwhile and interesting. Our culture reinforces our assumption that being busy equals being productive and important. Very often, before we can move out of our busyness syndrome, we need to remind ourselves again and again that we are not defined by our job, our role, or how sought after we are. The following contemplation can be done in a moment or two, and it’s one of the great practices for recalibrating your sense of yourself.

Practice Break: Find the Non-Verbal I Am

Stop. Close your eyes. Ask yourself, “When I’m not busy, not engaged, not productive, who am I? When I’m not thinking, not moving around, not emotionally engaged, who am I?”

Rather than looking for a verbal answer or an insight, tune into the space that opens up right after the question.

Yoga for Internal Busyness

Dealing with External Busyness nearly always demands some practical solutions—delegating, dropping or letting go of certain activities, maybe even giving yourself a weekly Sabbath, a real day of rest and inner contemplation. But Internal Busyness is the domain of yoga. To really address your internal busyness, you need two types of yoga: First, you need inner practices that take you to your center, to find the calm beneath the storm. A daily meditation practice is crucial, but so are micro-practices—like the ones in this column—that you can do throughout the day. Second, you need to cultivate attitudes that turn your frenzied activity into karma yoga, which is the path to union through action.

A lot of yogis I know use the term “karma yoga” as a synonym for the work they do, as in “My work is my yoga.” But work becomes yoga only when you act with inner focus. Otherwise, you might be doing wonderful things in the world—making great art, doing poverty law, or working for the environment—but still feel overwhelmed, under appreciated, and burned out. To have inner focus is to be in touch with something inside us that is still, that is not touched by action.

There’s an old Zen story about two monks who ran into each other outside their temple. One of them was sweeping the temple steps. Seeing him, the second monk admonished him: “Too busy!” What he meant was that his brother monk should have been doing something more contemplative, something like, say, meditating. The sweeping monk answered, “You should know that there is one who is not busy!”

The sweeping monk was a master of karma yoga. Even in the midst of activity, he had learned how to remain poised in stillness. Having found his own center, he could act in time and space from the state of stillness and timelessness.

Real karma yoga shifts your relationship to time. You might have actually experienced such a moment, when time seemed to cease to exist. Maybe you were truly engrossed in a task. Maybe it happened on a walk, or on your mountain bike, or even when your car skidded on the ice and swerved off the road. One minute, you’re in “normal” clock time, maybe feeling normal time pressure, or wishing the clock would move faster. The next, time slows, and you’re in the gap between Now and Then, between Past and Future. In that gap, the Timeless Eternal Present moment arises. There is no time pressure, because there is no time. When you can enter that zone, you have all the time you need to complete whatever task is necessary.

Years ago, when I first started to give public talks, I found myself running late to a program. The program had started, and I knew it would take me at least 10 minutes to get there. I began to rush. I could feel anxiety coursing through every cell of my body. Suddenly, from some grace-filled inner realm, the thought arose: “What do you think you’re doing?” I tried to push it down and keep running, but it came up again.

What did I think I was doing? I stopped still for a moment, and practiced Stress Management 101, taking slow, deep breaths. One deep breath after another, until I felt some of the anxiety starting to drain out of my shoulders and neck.

When I went on, I noticed I was feeling different. Whether it was the breathing or the intention to stop rushing, something had moved me out of the zone of busyness, and into an internal quiet. Still focusing on the breath, I arrived at the program site five minutes late, but so present that I was able to flow right into it, with no bumps, no nervousness. That moment, simple as it was, was a kind of turning point for me. For a friend whose work demanded that he spend hours every day in punishing traffic, the turning point was a decision to keep his attention in the heart while he was driving. For each of us, the shift came with a decision to focus inward at a moment of stress, and to allow the Gap, the place of stillness where time slows down, to show its face.

The One Who Is Not Busy lives in the space between every breath. She (I’ll call her she, though of course she’s beyond gender) is in the breath inside the breath, and the space in between each thought. In the space between the end of one action and the beginning of the next, between one breath and another, we can merge into the source of all action, “the still point between the turning worlds.” Known in Sanskrit as the Madhya, the Center point, or the Gap, this doorway into spaciousness arises in every moment. We just don’t normally notice it, as we don’t normally notice the pavement we’re walking over.

Meditation is the way we train ourselves to notice. (It’s not an accident that when Krishna began teaching his disciple Arjuna the actual methodology of the yoga of action, he started him off with meditation.) When we meditate, we practice finding and lingering in the still point. Once we’ve learned to inhabit it with our eyes closed, we can begin to recognize the Gap when it shows up in the midst of activity.

That kind of meditation—meditation on the fly, as it were—is often said to be more valuable than sitting meditation. But we can’t really meditate on the fly until we’ve had some practice in sitting meditation. A regular sitting meditation practice trains you to identify the felt sense of quiet mind, and then you have a better chance of finding the quiet in the midst of focus. After years of tuning into The One Who Is Not Busy, I’ve learned to step into those still moments rather than overriding them. When I stop to savor that stillness, my subsequent actions flow from that quiet place, and have a power that my ordinary mind can’t come near.

Practice Break: Find the Still Point in the Midst of Action

Right now, in your seat, begin to sway slowly from side to side, inhaling to one side, exhaling to the other. At the end of each phase of the movement, notice the pause. Tune into the pause that shows up on the right side, then on the left. Focus on the pause for a few seconds, then let the movement flow from that.

Do this for two minutes. Notice the effect. See if you can hold that space of quiet when you move onto your next activity.

If you can move from that place of quiet, even for a few minutes at a time, you might find that even in your busyness, you can find the timeless.

Sally Kempton, formerly known as Swami Durgananda, is recognized as a powerful meditation guide and as a spiritual teacher who integrates yogic philosophy with daily life. She is the author of the best-selling book Meditation for the Love of It, and writes the popular Wisdom column for Yoga Journal. She is a teacher in the tantric tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, conducts workshops and retreats on its applied philosophy, and is also a core founder and faculty of iEvolve: Center for World Spirituality. You can find Sally’s personal website at www.SallyKempton.com


Millions of spiritual seekers today are confused. Some grew up in religions that they left and charted their own spiritual path. Others were raised without religion and found their way to spiritual practice. Still others practice in a particular religion yet do not feel that it holds the exclusive truth, and feel powerfully attracted to other systems of spirit that might deepen or compliment their native tradition. It is clear that the time for the emergence of Spirit’s next step is now, and that the emergence of a World Spirituality is an evolutionary step in human history.

That’s why we are delighted to invite you to World Spirituality Annual Practice Retreat of Love and Activism – Evolutionary Integral Relationships with Dr. Marc Gafni, Sally Kempton, Warren Farrell, Terry Patten, Mariana Caplan, Decker Cunov, Dustin DiPerna, & Marcy Baruch, July 17th – 24th in Berkeley, California.

Register with a friend to receive an even deeper discount!


  1. Sally – thank you…I appreciate your writing very much. I’m goin to include this in our next Still Mountain newsletter. Peace, Pam

  2. Thank you for naming something I struggled to define: the Madhya. I experienced this after my first meditation course and thought I’d found enlightenment! It is worth its weight in gold.

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