In Praise of Idleness

“Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.” Soren Kierkegaard

This is a very old book review from the back catalogue of my blog but seems still spot-on. Tom’s book was published in 2005, and 16 years on, the fearsome pace of life has only been a little dented by COVID lockdowns and the ambient doominess about the Climate Crisis. Though the pandemic may have slowed us, there is still an intense speediness in our worried minds. (You might like to come to our Soothing the Anxious Mind weekend to settle that!) Mastering the art of idleness – either by Hodgkinson’s hedonistic or the Buddha’s liberated method – is a ‘true good’. Thank you, Søren.

I have just finished reading Tom Hodgkinson’s wonderful book How to be Free.

Perhaps because I’ve been through a rather turbulent year at work and have been wrestling with some of the fierce demons of the freelance life, this book fell like fructificant manna from heaven.

In essence, Hodgkinson says that we have been blinded and beaten into a crazy life where we work slavish hours to earn money which we are then hypnotized into giving back to the people who enslave us. So we work in Tescos for 50 hours a week and then spend all our money in Tescos buying food and doing our banking at Tescos and landing ourselves with massive mortgages which chain us to a property for 25 years.

Work was done communally, profit was seen as suspicious and usury was the devils’ work

With rhetorically rose-tinted specs, Hodgkinson looks back at Merry England, pre-Reformation Britain, where work was done communally, profit was seen as suspicious, and usury was the devils’ work. Any fines and taxes went into funding feasts and communal projects.

Hodgkinson gives the example of a serf, a medieval peasant in the town of Foxton in the 1200s. Now, most people don’t think much of being a peasant. But back then, John Aubrey worked one day a week for his feudal overlord. In return, he had a house and 18 acres of land. Plus a wage of 9s 8d a year and a handful of chickens. Think about that in terms of 2006: you work 10 hours a week for someone else, and they give you a £650.000 property in the country (leasehold) and a salary equivalent to £30,000 and you have six days a week free to work on your garden, raise your animals and play with your children.

Meditation is a form of purposeful idleness

Compare that with our typical 50 hour week slaving for vast corporations with no money left over after paying massive mortgages on property that the banks own.

It’s a colossal con to think that we’re freer now than they were back then.

Hodgkinson is my age and the editor of the excellent Idler magazine. Idleness is his answer to this back-breaking cycle of covert feudalism that the puritan work ethic has loaded us with. Express non-action. Laziness. Loafing. Taking the time to lie in bed and not stress about ‘getting things done’. Catching the bus and staring out the window. Growing your own vegetables. Not throwing things away all the time – being thrifty, because not spending so much money mean you don’t have to work so much.

He doesn’t mention it, but meditation is a form of purposeful idleness. (He’s big on a jolly sort of existentialism – the book’s tagline is: ‘Life is Absurd. Be merry. Be free.’) But Buddhism offers a different take on the whole idle question.
Over the years, with my experiences in Brazil and on the meditation cushion, I’ve also learnt to step back from what we assume is the correct way to live and ask: does this way of living make me and the people around me happy? Does keeping up with the Joneses keep me smiling? Does the insatiable desire for new things, different things – the radical discontent which fuels capitalism – does that ever lead to permanent peace and happiness? Clearly not.

Finding peace means disentangling yourself from those inherited, brainwashed patterns that we swallow wholesale

Sitting cross-legged and just breathing is a much more radical thing than it looks. We don’t need to spend any money. We don’t need to be discontent. We can be happy with so little.

Radical idleness will dissolve everything. That’s the core of the Buddha’s teaching. Finding peace means disentangling yourself from those inherited, brainwashed patterns that we swallow wholesale from our parents, our teachers and everyone around us. Perhaps it seems mad/selfish/irresponsible to be idle. But perhaps it’s mad/selfish/irresponsible to spend your whole human life doing something that harms you, the people around you and the environment. What’s altruistic about heart-corroding stress, no time for your children and a scorching hole in the Ozone layer?

The Buddha was quite clear about the need to disentangle. Meditation is all about dismantling all the constituent bits and pieces of existence: Form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness – and noticing how they all work together and what they create. Sometimes what we see completely contradicts what we thought we’d see.

I feel happy to have beaten the brainwashing and go back to enjoying the winter sunshine

Just allowing ourselves a 20-minute breather twice a day is the cold shower of reality. It stops us walking sleepy-eyed into a hypnotic life of believing the hype. And those two lagoons of clear-sightedness also spill out into the day.

I’ve started doing a double-take every time I have a sudden urge to buy something when I’m out and about. I’ll be walking down the street and suddenly want a coffee or a new computer. And almost always, it’s because of an Apple ad. Or a shop pumping out caffeine fumes has planted that desire in my head. And noticing, it annoys me. And rather than spending £2 or £2000, I feel happy to have beaten the brainwashing and go back to enjoying the winter sunshine or whatever else is happening around me before the advertising struck.

Studied idleness is the answer to the terrible stress we all live under; the stress that the world around us generates deliberately stressed people. Who buy more because they’re out of control and because they need comforting. Disentangling from the web of the Puritan Work Ethic and sunning ourselves in the simple pleasure of the idle moment is the only way to be free.

Have a truly idle Autumn!

I’d love to know your thoughts on idleness. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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  • I have worked almost all of my adult life. A single parent really has no choice, nor time for idleness. However, due to the pandemic, I was furloughed then made redundant, when the company I worked for, closed almost all its outlets in England.
    Wow, now I know what idleness feels like!! And I hated it, got fidgety, couldn’t sit still but gradually, with the help of meditation and gentle yoga with MSPS, I’ m realising the glory and contentment gained from a lovely hour or two , each day, on the cushion. It takes a while to adjust to a quieter lifestyle and I’m not quite there yet but I’m sticking with you and Daniel as you have done so much to help me see a way forward. Here’s to idleness 🙏

  • Jane Davis says:

    This reminds me of how people (including me)–regardless of how much or little money they have–can be seduced into being sharecroppers to/in ‘crapitalism.’

    Anyway, this blog somehow brought to mind one stanza from a poem by Vachel Linsday (1879-1931), “Light O’ The Moon”:

    “What Mister Moon Said to Me”:

    “Come, eat the bread of idleness,
    Come, sit beside the spring:
    Some of the flowers will keep awake,
    Some of the birds will sing.

    Come, eat the bread no man has sought
    For half a hundred years:
    Men hurry so they have no griefs,
    Nor even idle tears:

    They hurry so they have no loves:
    They cannot curse nor laugh —
    Their hearts die in their youth with neither
    Grave nor epitaph.

    My bread would make them careless,
    And never quite on time —
    Their eyelids would be heavy,
    Their fancies full of rhyme:

    Each soul a mystic rose-tree,
    Or a curious incense tree:
    Come, eat the bread of idleness,
    Said Mister Moon to me….”

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