Rolling balls through the mind, or: On the Virtues of Laziness....
I could have a job, but am too lazy to choose it;
I have got land, but am too lazy to farm it.
My house leaks; I am too lazy to mend it.
My clothes are torn; I am too lazy to darn them.
I have got wine, but I am too lazy to drink;
So it's just the same as if my cup were empty.
I have got a lute, but am too lazy to play;
So it's just the same as if it had no strings.
My family tells me there is no more steamed rice;
I want to cook, but am too lazy to grind.
My friends and relatives write me long letters;
I should like to read them, but they're such a bother to open.
I have always been told that Hsi Shu-yeh
Passed his whole life in absolute idleness.
But he played his lute and sometimes worked at his forge;
So even he was not so lazy as I.
Lazy Man’s Song—by Po Chu-I
(Blogger's note: I have not had much time recently to do any new writing, so I'm posting an old essay that I wrote about 3 years ago for the now-defunct website, disinfo.com. Although not directly addressing counseling practice or theory, I would hope the relevance would be somewhat apparent.)
Po Chu-I is the smarmy 8th-9th century Chinese bastard who also wrote a poem asking why Lao-Tzu bothered to write 5,000 words about the Tao if it were true that the “person who speaks doesn’t know and the person who knows doesn’t speak.” The answer to which is, “What the fuck else was Lao Tzu supposed to do? Just, like, fucking nod at people? Impart his knowledge through ESP to unsuspecting passersby or some shit?” Hell, we’re lucky Lao Tzu didn’t develop hypergonadism, quit his job as a librarian and preach neutered versions of his understanding to a bunch of new age idiot hippies in Crestone, Colorado. Or, he could’ve made like Hegel and written hundreds of thousands of words of impenetrable prose about an idea that took my philosophy professor in college two minutes and a quick sketch on the whiteboard to get across just fine. When you think of it all in those terms, 5,000 words spent attempting to point at something that is so abundant that it’s absent, so imminent that it’s transcendent, so obvious that the vast majority of humans never see it, it becomes clear that 5000 words is actually a model of conciseness and restraint. The dude, (Lao Tzu, or his minions, or whoever wrote the damned thing) obviously knew what he (they?) was talking about and he was trying his damndest to remain as quiet as he could about it.
Still, even if all of Po Chu-I’s poems were as banal as his one about Lao Tzu, the Lazy Man’s Song would be enough to redeem the entirety of his oeuvre. Luckily for us, however, Po Chu-I was a genius, and the Lao Tzu poem was the exception. Po Chu-I didn’t fall for all that literary praise and nonsense that has kept literature dry and boring for all of human civilization across all parts of the globe for the entire time it’s existed. Po Chu-I didn’t care if the literati found his poetry clever. Instead, he would write the first draft of his poems, find some illiterate dunce on the street somewhere, read the poem to that dunce and ask the dunce if he/she understood the poem. If the dunce didn’t understand the poem, Po Chu-I rewrote it and tried again, until the dunce could understand what Po Chu-I was trying to get across.
He was just a regular Jonathan (Lethem or Franzen) this one was, wasn’t he? ←-*Sarcasm* (because even in ancient China, they didn’t hand out awards for writing shit actual human beings—as opposed to lit-bots—could read.)
Anyhow, some critics believe that the Lazy Man’s Song was Po Chu-I bewailing the state of laziness. Of course they would. There are few people on this planet as staid and lifeless and humorless as a professional critic. It’s right there in the title: “critic.” When any halfway intelligent person should be cultivating an attitude that says, “YES!” to the entirety of life’s offerings, the critic has cultivated and is constantly practicing an attitude of, “Well, uh, let me observe this thing first. Uh, well, there’s not enough control over the leitmotif, and the metaphors conflict with the thematic unity, and Jim-Bob from Kokomo, Indiana might understand this sentence, so…”
I shudder just thinking about it.
So sure, most critics would believe Po Chu-I would lament the greatest virtue granted to the human being: laziness. They would believe so because in a so-called civilized world we can abide most any sin to some extent, with one exception: laziness. In my essay about Apathy, I wrote that an American can abide just about any sin other than not giving a shit. But I was wrong. There is another, far, far worse sin in the mind of the pathetic: laziness. Americans are so pathetic they’d rather live in a world where they are forced to work 70 hour weeks for a boss who, in another era, would’ve reigned gleefully over a plantation or gushed at the thought of 6 year old children working in a factory that he owned, than in a world where they can get eight hours of sleep. Americans are so afraid of being seen as lazy that they don’t even use their sick or vacation days. An American would rather be miserable and “hard working” than happy and lazy. Dolts.
In a world where child molesting filmmakers are defended and celebrated even by the cream of their field, and where a wildly successful adult musician can pee on a 13-year-old’s face on camera and score numerous praise and adulation in the years following, and where an athlete can settle out of court with someone accusing him (quite convincingly) of rape and still be considered, with no reservations, as a hero because he was good at being a ball-hog on the basketball court—the only unredeemable sins are not giving a shit and being a lazy fuck.
You see this in sports-writing all the time. And you might ask, “Who gives a fuck about what sportswriters have to say? They’re sportswriters.” To which I respond that if you want to gauge the direction of a given society’s moral whims, you must consult the most simple-minded of its citizens. And with few exceptions, in American society, the citizenry doesn’t come much more imbecilic than the sportswriters.
If you’re even moderately concerned about the health of your society, and you spend enough time following this stuff—sports, I mean—you should reach a point somewhere in your mid 20s (or sooner, if you’re smarter than I am, which, hopefully, many of you are) where you just get to be repulsed by the whole thing. I’m not going to lie, I like to watch sports. It’s not my favorite thing in the world to do, but there are worse ways to spend an evening. Watching sporting events with others is also one of the few ways I can socialize without coming off as too awkward or odd (with exceptions: when I’m watching amateur wrestling or MMA, I get so involved with the fights that I shimmy and jive with the movements of the fighters/wrestlers and it looks like, I imagine, my body’s convulsing in reaction to some sort of random meltdown in my CNS). So I like to watch sports, although these days I’m much less likely to follow them.
The reason for this is because, as I’ve mentioned, I’m repulsed by the culture of sports. At its best, athletic achievement astonishes us into contemplating the miracle that is the human body and mind. With enough training, with enough will, with enough non-laziness, a human being can accomplish wondrous things. There are very few things that can inspire and astound me as much as when I see a wrestler or a fighter dig into the deepest reaches of their “soul” during the final minutes of a match or fight and find that part of the human spirit that most of us will never even flirt with. I know I won’t. I’m too damned lazy. But I appreciate and applaud it, nonetheless.
However, the culture surrounding such achievements is repugnant. Veritable creeps and monsters are celebrated on the regular, quite frankly, simply because they’re not “lazy.” And perfectly amicable presences are vilified simply because they are merely perceived to be. Moral whirlpools like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan are celebrated for “being winners” while ostensibly less disgusting human beings like Dwight Howard are maligned because he seems to have a life outside of basketball. In short, he’s lazy. He’d rather have fun and enjoy being a millionaire who gets paid to play a game millions of us find enjoyable enough to play for free, in our spare time. The sportswriters denigrated Lebron James—again, someone who on the surface at least appears to be less contemptible than someone like Kobe Bryant—for years simply because he made the mistake of, one year, making a big issue of where he was going to play,and then choosing to play on a team with a couple of other good basketball players. The sportswriters declared James “lazy” because he couldn’t win a title “on his own.” In short, he would’ve been better off raping someone in a hotel room somewhere in Colorado and staying to play basketball in Cleveland.
Billionaire owners convince citizens to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes to help them build stadiums so that the billionaire owners can get richer, while the fan base that paid for the thing doesn’t get much of anything. The players who put their bodies and minds on the line to entertain us are smeared when they are caught using drugs to “enhance” their performance, but all the coaches and owners and journalists who looked the other way—and who didn’t put their health at risk for our enjoyment-- are let off without so much as a stern talking to.
The reason for the latter is because the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs is considered by the masses to be a “lazy” act—because the masses consist of a bunch of morons who believe steroids make anything possible.
And so you can see the connection between the critics who want so desperately to believe that Po Chu-I was being plaintive about the state of laziness instead of celebrating it, and the society that believes it’s worse if you take some HGH to help you recover after a game of football than it is to punch your wife in the face. The former are at risk of a lifetime ban from their sport, while the latter are given a 2 game suspension.
Regardless, no matter what some critics think, Po Chu-I was celebrating the state of laziness, because it is a wonderful state. There are few pieces of literature that openly admit as much.
So few artists—or people in general-- throughout history have recognized the redeeming qualities of laziness. Even those who seem to intuitively grasp that there’s something valid—and dare I say—even vital about it, tend to use the word “leisure” instead of laziness. Still, there are forms of “leisure” that take a lot of effort. The entire point of laziness is that it takes none.
Some of my favorite philosophers have railed against laziness. Lin Yutang spent far too many words distinguishing between what is “lazy” and what is “leisure.” Seneca confuses himself by first naming laziness as one of the “perverse” pleasures of the body, but then aptly goes on to point out to Lucilius that people put too much effort and work into things that simply aren’t worthwhile (the true insight of anyone defending laziness). DT Suzuki feels an almost compulsive need to defend Chinese Ch’an (as opposed to Japanese Zen, which is very unlazy) Buddhism from accusations of laziness.
But, you know why Suzuki felt the need to do so? Because all of the old Ch’an literature was very obviously fond of laziness. Why do you think those old bald-headed dweebs sat around staring at walls all day? There’s nothing magical about sitting meditation, it’s just the easiest, least-effortful way to focus the mind (many will argue with me on this point, and that’s fine, but I will not address it here). Buddhism is historically a lazy religion. Why do you think the old Buddhists begged for their food instead of working for it? If you read Red Pine’s Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, you’ll learn all about how, even today, true-blue spiritual practice and laziness go hand in hand. The hermits live in mud huts and cold, leaky caves, and the language they use to justify such an existence goes something like, “I needed to escape from the world and detach myself from all material attachments” more or less. But the observant reader realizes that laziness is nothing if not an escape from the world. “The world” is constant effort and struggle to get things done--to accomplish things, usually for material gain. Therefore, if you’re escaping the need to accomplish things for material gain, you’re simply being “lazy.”
A lot of readers (if there are indeed any) are probably chafing right now. Practitioners of Buddhism, Zen, meditation, spiritual seekers in general, are protesting. People can deal with being called a lot of things, but lazy isn’t one of them. As I’ve pointed out, we, as a society, have a lot of patience for a lot of things, but laziness is an exception. But if anyone is upset, it’s only because they still haven’t realized that laziness isn’t a bad thing. Robert Heinlein identified that all of our technological “progress” wasn’t due to the “early risers,” it was due to lazy people looking for easier ways to do things.
…Ok. That was actually a bad example. Modern technology has been quite damaging. Let’s try that again….
Anne Frank, bless her soul, said that laziness appeared “attractive,” but that work gave “satisfaction.” Leo Tolstoy disagrees. Tolstoy says, “You can't imagine what a pleasure this complete laziness is to me: not a thought in my brain- you might send a ball rolling through it!” That quote suggests Tolstoy seemed pretty “satisfied” to me.Anyone who has ever felt the joy of laziness, knows precisely what Tolstoy is talking about. However, I think the reason why he and Anne Frank disagree—and one of the main reasons why laziness gets such a bad rap—is that Anne Frank, and many others,confuse laziness with boredom. Kant went so far as to lump laziness and cowardice together.
Let’s start by addressing “boredom,” however. The cruel truth of the matter is that the less you actually like yourself, the easier it is to suffer from boredom. I’m totally in love with myself, so I don’t get bored very easily. I enjoy my own company. With that said, boredom and laziness are not one and the same. Sometimes they overlap, usually in depressed people, but they are two distinct entities. Tolstoy, for example, in his quote didn’t seem to be bored when he was lazy. Just the same, all these idiot French existentialists from the middle of the last century were bored all the goddamned time, but they weren’t lazy, as evidenced by the fact that they wrote thousand upon thousands of pages about their boredom.
In fact, unless you’re depressed, laziness and boredom are almost mutually exclusive. The precise reason why you’re being lazy is because you are not bored doing it. The reason why lazy people don’t do shit is because they’re enjoying not doing shit. If you’re enjoying something, you’re not bored with it. Working is boring. Putting effort into meaningless tasks for some vague idea of “status” or “money” or “recognition” is boring. Going back to Po Chu-I’s poem, grinding rice and farming is boring. Lying around being a worthless piece of shit is fun as hell.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s address this idea that laziness is “cowardly.” Kant believes that laziness is cowardly because he equates it with ignorance, mediocrity and a lack of agency. A person is ignorant because they make no effort to educate themselves. A person suffers the fortune of a mediocre life, failing to fulfill their potential, because they are too lazy to fight for something better. A person gives away their autonomy, choosing instead to flail along with the winds of fate.
But that is only one (quite limited and limiting) perspective. There is a dark side to laziness, sure. But I disagree with Kant. People work 40-70 hours per week, for 50 weeks out of the year because those are the people who are ignorant. They’re ignorant of all the joys life has to offer outside of status, money and power over others. Working 40-70 hours per weeks for 50 weeks out of the year is being mediocre because it takes a mediocre mind to handle it. Exceptional minds go mad working so much. And out of all those hours and weeks, how much of that time was spent doing things those people actually want to do and enjoy? My guess is very little. And therefore you see how it is the “hard worker” and not the lazy person who has a lack of agency.
From my perspective, most everything I enjoy about life stems from my laziness. I would much rather spend the day reading books, taking my daughter to the park, watching kung fu movies, making love to my wife and writing silly, brief poems about my childhood, than in “accomplishing” things. Some people might say that this, then, doesn’t qualify as “laziness” because I’m not just sitting around staring at walls or whatever (which I also prefer to actually “doing shit”). However, what I’m saying is that I didn’t like going to school (grade or college, even though I forced myself to get an M.A.) and I have never really had a job that I liked. I hate chores. I don’t enjoy doing things that take any real sort of effort.
“Effort,” to me, means doing something you don’t want to do. “Effort” is “boring.” “Laziness” is simply doing the things you’d rather be doing. Japanese haiku master Kobayahi Issa writes a haiku that goes something like (depending on the translation):
Don't worry, spiders,
I keep house
(as translated by Robert Hass)
And whenever I read that haiku, I think to myself, “Yeah! Fuck keeping house.” Or, more accurately, “Yeah! Keep the house just fucking clean enough.”
In short, everything in my life that is good, everything that keeps me from sticking my head in an oven is due to those times in my life when I am allowed to be lazy. When I’m out and about contributing to this sick society, or “accomplishing” things for my own ego, status or bank account, I wonder why we are so intent to torment ourselves so. There seems to me to be very little that is brave or heroic about it. And that’s that I don’t have much status, I don’t have much of a bank account, and I don’t take my job all that seriously. So when I think of those people who do work tirelessly for such things, it literally fills me with feelings of fear and foreboding. I simply cannot grasp the purpose of wasting life in such a way.
With apologies to Kant, to immerse one’s self in laziness in the way I’m trying to get across is not cowardly at all. It is heroic. It takes courage. People will judge you for it. They will demean you to your face for it. They will hate you for it. They will envy you for it. For a time you will probably even hate yourself for it. It will feel uncomfortable, even vile. You will think to yourself, “Gee, I ought to be accomplishing something right now. What? I don’t know, but this not accomplishing shit feels weird.” It might even feel wasteful.
Ignore those feelings. Those feelings have been stomped into you by a greedy, miserable, grossly cowardly society and the members of that society stomped those ideas into you with their $600 iPhones in their hands so that they could snapchat it to their friends or whatever while they were doing so. Have the courage to ignore what Nietzsche called the great dragon of “thou shalt.” Have the courage to ignore that dragon--which is ultimately, yes, more difficult than actually just slaying the dragon-- and live the heroic life of laziness.
A lazy person never started a war. A lazy person never put enough effort into oppressing someone else, even if they happened to feel like doing so. A lazy person never made it to the top of their field or made a billion dollars by exploiting, manipulating and deceiving others. Such actions would simply take too much effort. (And, yeah, an argument could be made that a lazy person also never made the effort to prevent oppression or to stop a war, but such an argument conflates a “lazy” person with an “asshole.” There’s a difference between the two.)
Sure, no one will write poems about you, and the sportswriters of the world will pen incomprehensible screeds against your exploits, because true heroism is subtle and most people simply won’t understand it. But you will suddenly understand the desire to write poetry in the first place. You will understand Po Chu I’s and Kobayashi Issa’s desire to write poems about themselves. You will become your own hero. Because when you stop attempting to accomplish life, and simply allow yourself to experience life, that is an accomplishment you’ll want to share with the world, even if it won’t listen.