Life Lessins Blog

Busyness: An Obstacle to Holding Space

We’ve seen that among the ingredients necessary to hold space for our emotions, time and presence are near the top of the list. Holding a feeling requires us to pause and dedicate some of our attentional resources to “being with” our internal experience. 

Yet it seems like time is harder than ever to come by. We never seem to have enough of it. We multitask our way through packed daily schedules, attempting to compress activities into shorter and shorter windows of time in a desperate attempt to get everything done. We may sense that our chronic state of busyness is wreaking havoc on our psychological equilibrium by depriving us of the space we need to tend to our emotions, but we can’t help it. Who has time to slow down?

Why does it feel like time is scarce? Why is it so difficult to carve out the space we need to regulate our emotions?

Social Acceleration

It’s no secret that as a society, our pace of life is speeding up. We can get places sooner, reach people faster, and manufacture items quicker than has ever been possible. We have succeeded in virtually erasing time-lapses in communication to anyone at any point anywhere in the world. Immediacy has become the norm, and wait times have all but disappeared when purchasing items, accessing information, and obtaining services. Nothing takes all that much time anymore.

“Social acceleration” is the term used by sociologists to describe this phenomenon of societal speed-up, which has become one of the defining characteristics of the 21st century. 

Observers of this trend note an interesting irony: Given that we have the tools to get more done in less time, the result should be a massive amount of free time, not a lack of it. The myriad of time-saving devices on the market should be giving people the freedom to slow down and “take their time.” Yet the contemporary experience is exactly the opposite. Time seems less available than in the past, in higher demand and shorter supply than ever. 

Why hasn’t modern innovation produced the overabundance of free time we would have expected?

The Busyness Mentality

The reason for this apparent contradiction is that not only has our rate of activity changed; so has our mentality. While technological advancement has given us countless new opportunities, it has also ushered in The Age of Impatience. It is harder for us to sit still, wait in line, or focus on things with undivided attention. Many of us have grown up on (or become used to) a steady diet of stimulation, distraction, and high-speed mental activity. When we find ourselves with extra time, we don’t know what to do with it.

In short, we have become addicted to busyness. We always feel like we need to be doing something. We are more restless than ever as we juggle endless commitments and try to be in several places at once. Just “being” leaves us feeling antsy, bored, and left with that nagging feeling that there’s something else we should be doing right now. We keep ourselves busy in order to avoid “non-doing,” always finding some way to stay occupied so that we don’t have to sit with ourselves (cue the cell phone). As an acquaintance of mine recently told me, “Busy is the new happy.”

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with being busy, and there is certainly no shortage of things we really need to do, an unfortunate side-effect of busyness is that it doesn’t allow us to pause long enough to hold space for ourselves and those around us. As we’ve seen, holding space is more than being technically aware that something is happening inside (although sometimes we miss that too). It is about allowing a process to unfold, dipping beneath the surface of our experience and tuning into the internal emotional frequency. 

How many of us take the time to do this? When was the last time we did nothing other than sit and pay attention to the feelings inside that need our care and attention? Do we even know how to anymore?

Stepping Back From Time

The good news is that we all possess a dimension of timeless presence that we can learn to tap into. It’s interesting to note that of the many characteristics of G-d, the one that seems most unattainable to us is His quality of being outside of time. G-d created time but exists outside of it. To Him, past, present, and future all exist simultaneously something we cannot understand. It would seem then, that of the many descriptions of G-d, being timeless is not one we should aspire to.

Not so! Although we are bound by the laws of time, we do have the ability to taste what it means to step outside of it. The movement of time carries a momentum with the strength to pull us along if we allow it to. But we can also step back from time’s flow and resist being dragged forward by its incessant demands. We do this by stopping ourselves, broadening our perspective, and choosing to be present with wherever we are.

This is one explanation of what it means to live with our “feet rooted on the earth while the head reaches the heavens” (Bereishit 28:12). We break the rush of time by planting our feet in the current moment and elevating ourselves above the fray. Doing so allows us to tap into our experience in a deeper way, which in turn reconnects us to ourselves.

Stepping back from time is one of the many opportunities granted to us each week on Shabbos. Shabbos is associated with menucha, meaning rest, inner stillness, peacefulness. On the one hand, Shabbos is contained within a period of 25 hours, but on the other hand it gives us the chance to transcend time and access a “taste of the World to Come” beyond time (Berachot 57b; “Mah Yedidut”). On Shabbos we slow down, pull out of the rat race, and tap into the timeless dimension of life.

The Slow-Fix

In our fast-paced world, we need to learn the art of the “slow-fix” when dealing with emotions. There is simply no way to rush an emotional process. Every attempt to find shortcuts, speed things up, or come up with a trick to circumvent a feeling will inevitably backfire (and end up taking more time). There’s really no way around it – sometimes we just need to take a moment, drop into what we are feeling, and hold space for ourselves.

The “slow-fix” means inserting pockets of slow-down into our day to check in with ourselves before rejoining the ebb and flow (or roaring rush) of daily life. We may think we are too busy to pause and take emotional stock, but this is almost never really the case. Some things can wait. We can all devote a few moments of our time to the maintenance of our psychological health. It’s true that a healthy dose of “non-doing” may feel uncomfortable at first, but with practice we will see that being present is precisely what the emotion-doctor ordered.


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1 Comment

  1. Hi R’ Lessin,
    This post really spoke to me a lot. I also find that, sometimes, the people who take on the most and seem to be busiest are those trying to hide from their true selves. My wife once compared it to a dreidel: Some people spin so much because they are scared that when they stop they won’t land on a “Gimmel.” Looking forward to the next post.
    Moshe Tzvi