Charles Eisenstein on work, leisure, and ‘not-doing’

Full desk clip art (PD)I’ve just finished reading Charles Eisenstein‘s inspiring new book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible.  It is every bit as brilliant as 2011’s Sacred Economics, and I recommend it just as highly.  In lieu of a new blog post from me – I’m working on several, but none are ready yet – I’d like to share an extended series of quotes from the new book that are particularly relevant for rethinking the job culture.  Enjoy!

“Immersed in a system that never lets us rest, that condemns laziness and pushes us toward ever-increasing busyness through economic pressure, we…tell ourselves we must always be doing something.  Time’s a-wastin’!

“The primary habit that arises from it [existential scarcity] is the habit of always doing.  Here and now is never enough.  You might protest that most people in the Western world spend vast amounts of time doing nothing productive at all, watching TV and playing video games, but those are displacements of doing, and not nondoing.

“I am not saying that it is bad to do.  I am saying that there is a time to do, and a time not to do, and that when we are a slave to the habit of doing we are unable to distinguish between them.

“A good time to do nothing is any time you feel stuck.  I have done a lot of nothing in the writing of this book.  For several days I was trying to write the conclusion, spinning my wheels, turning out tawdry rehashes of earlier material.  The more I did, the worse it got.  So I finally gave up the effort and just sat there on the couch…with no agenda whatever of figuring out what to write.  It was from that empty place that the conclusion arose, unbidden.

“…do you find yourself contracting a case of the fuck-its?  The procrastination, the laziness, the halfhearted attempts, the going through the motions – all indicate that the old story isn’t motivating you anymore.  What once made sense, makes sense no longer.  You are beginning to withdraw from that world.  Society does its best to persuade you to resist that withdrawal, which, when resisted, is called depression.  Increasingly potent motivational and chemical means are required to keep us focused on what we don’t want to focus on, to keep us motivated to do that which we don’t care about.  If fear of poverty doesn’t work, then maybe psychiatric medication will.  Anything to keep you participating in business as usual.

“You can’t just do whatever you feel like.”  “You can’t just do anything you want.”  “You have to learn self-restraint.”  “You’re only interested in gratifying your desires.”  “You don’t care about anything but your own pleasure.”  Can you hear the judgmentality in these admonitions?  Can you see how they reproduce the mentality of domination that runs our civilization?  Goodness comes through conquest.  Health comes through conquering bacteria.  Agriculture is improved by eliminating pests.  Society is made safe by winning the war on crime.  On my walk today, students accosted me, asking if I wanted to join the “fight” against pediatric cancer.  There are so many fights, crusades, campaigns, so many calls to overcome the enemy by force.  No wonder we apply the same strategy to ourselves.  Thus it is that the inner devastation of the Western psyche matches exactly the outer devastation it has wreaked on the planet. […]

“…it is scary to not do, or rather, to not impose doing.  Most of us have grown up in a society that trains us, from kindergarten or even earlier, to do things we don’t really want to do, and to refrain from things we do want to.  This is called discipline, the work ethic, self-control.  Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution at least, it has been seen as a cardinal virtue.  After all, most of the tasks of industry were not anything a sane human being would willingly do.  To this day, most of the tasks that keep society as we know it running are the same.  Lured by future rewards, chastened by punishment, we face the grim necessity of work.  This would all be defensible, perhaps, if this were were truly necessary, if it were contributing to the well-being of people and planet.  But at least 90 percent of it is not.  Part of our revolution is the reunion of work and play, work and art, work and leisure, of have to and want to.

“Our discomfort with a teaching like “You don’t have to do anything” comes in part from our thorough indoctrination into the work ethic, which holds that without the discipline of doing, nothing gets done.  If there were no grades hanging over their heads, no paycheck at the end of the week, and no internalized habit of work such devices have created, then most people wouldn’t keep doing what they do.  Only those who work for the love of it would continue – only those whose work gave them a palpable sense of service, of contribution, or of meaning.  In preparation for such a world, and to prepare such a world, let us cultivate the corresponding habit: in whatever way makes sense, let us practice trusting the impulse to work, and when it is not present, let us hold each other through the panic, uncertainty, and guilt that may arise.  […]

“You don’t have to do anything – why?  Not because nothing needs to be done.  It is that you don’t have to, because you will do.  The unstoppable compulsion to act, in bigger and wiser ways than you knew possible, has already been set in motion.  I am urging you to trust in that.  You needn’t contrive to motivate yourself, guilt yourself, or goad yourself into actions.  Actions taken from that place will be less powerful than ones that arise unbidden.  Trust yourself that you will know what to do, and that you will know when to do it.  […]

“When somebody is showing signs of distress and tiredness in organizing a specific activity we always ask – do you feel connected with what you are doing?  Does it make you happy or do you feel that you need to sacrifice for it?  If this feels like ‘work,’ stop it!”

“Doing only what makes them feel good, only what makes them feel connected, only what doesn’t feel like work…does that mean they get less done than when they were driven by urgency and seeking to be more efficient?  No, they get more done.  […]

“Not that there is anything wrong with work.  Work and play, work and leisure…it is time to question these polarities.  That doesn’t mean indolence.  When I worked in construction, the labor was sometimes very strenuous, but it was rarely an ordeal.  I didn’t have the feeling of fighting myself or forcing myself.  There is a time to make great efforts, a time to push one’s capacities to the limit.  We have after all been given those capacities for a reason.  But struggle is not supposed to be the default state of life.”

~ pp. 106 – 138