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in the Busy Life
by Thomas Moore

"The problem, as I see it, is not
exactly that we're too busy,
but that we're busy in the wrong way."

Thomas MooreA chaplain at a major university recently told me that, although her office is only a few yards from a beautiful flower garden, and although she works in the wings of the magnificent chapel, she rarely feels she has time for a meditative walk or a few minutes of prayer. As I travel the country talking about care of the soul, people tell me over and over that they don't have time for their souls -- they're too busy. Active modern life and soul don't seem to go together.

The problem, as I see it, is not exactly that we're too busy, but that we're busy in the wrong way. Creative, contemplative people often have very active days, but their full lives are not necessarily busy to the point where they can't pause, reflect, and be fruitfully distracted. If our work is nervous and obsessive, then there is clearly some disturbance of soul in our activity.

Even in the early history of the world, "busyness" implied anxious or superficial activity. As far back as the 14th century, "busy" was applied to the practical Martha in contrast to the contemplative Mary. It was said of old that a person was "busy like a moth," as we say "busy like a bee" -- striking images for the buzz of the active life.

It's the obsessiveness, I think, and not mere active engagement that prevents us from feeling free to take moments for withdrawal and quiet. We have so much to do that we're afraid it won't all get done. But the obsessive quality of any activity tells us that we're not engaged deeply enough, not fully "doing" our work, and so our activity is disturbing and unsatisfying.

Some people feeling anxiety in their active lives, try to compensate for it by forcing themselves to take breaks and vacations, but often their breaks, too, are anxious. I prefer to follow the advice of archetypal psychology: Go with the symptom. If we're too busy, we may need to be busy in more effective ways.

Busyness may signal that we're in the wrong job or not giving ourselves fully to our work. As a deeper issue, it may indicate that we're trying to accomplish some personal goal or satisfy a personal need inappropriately through our work.

When our work is finally settled, and we're doing a job not from personal anxiety but for love of the work, then we might feel freer to take the breaks and make the daily retreats that nurture the soul.

We may also discover a marvelous insight developed by medieval monks -- work is prayer. Being busy in an unanxious way is part of our spirituality, and not at odds with it. Mary and Martha were sisters, just as work and prayer are siblings. Monks are taught to turn work into prayer through their intention - but another way would be to develop a philosophy of life that makes no break between the ordinary and the sacred, no gulf between the worldly and the spiritual, and no distinction between Sunday and any other day of the week.

The final answer to busyness interfering with the soul is to let our spiritual values shape our activities so that they're honest, deeply motivated, cognizant of community, accomplished with attention and passion, and colored with love and solid satisfaction. Then the step from work to contemplation will be a short one, easier to take and ultimately engendering sufficient desire and pleasure to tear us away from all the "important" things that have to be done.

About the Author:
Thomas Moore first came to international attention as the author of Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. For twelve years a member of a Catholic religious order, and later a practicing psychotherapist, Moore's astute blending of spiritual practice and psychological insight speaks to a wide audience of modern seekers. He followed his first best-seller with Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, The Soul of Sex, and, most recently, Original Self. His other books include The Planets Within, Rituals of the Imagination, and Dark Eros, and he edited A Blue Fire, an anthology of the writings of James Hillman. Moore lives in New England and travels and lectures widely. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Syracuse University, an M.A. in theology from the University of Windsor, and a B.A. in music and philosophy from DePaul University.

Copyright © 1998, Thomas Moore

This article was first published in Spirituality & Health Magazine, subscription number: 800-876-8202.