The Second Burden

Larry Rosenberg, an American Buddhist teacher, trained in Korea. During one especially grueling course there, he and his fellow students were expected to meditate for an entire week with no sleep.

A few days in, Rosenberg panicked and became convinced that he couldn’t possibly make it the entire week. He requested an interview with the head teacher, a 90-year-old monk. The monk gave him the following advice.

He said that a week without sleep could definitely be done. It had been done by many others before me. The problem was that, in addition to my fatigue, I was carrying around an extra burden: the concept of seven days without sleep. I would be able to get through the week, he said, if I would put that burden down.

The monk told him that there were really two burdens: the actual responsibility of not sleeping for a week, and then a second burden, his reaction to that responsibility.

Rosenberg uses the experience to point out that we often carry two burdens. We face misfortune in one form or another. That misfortune amounts to our first burden. But then our minds create a second burden: our reaction to the misfortune. And “nothing is so bad that the story we create can’t make it worse.” The story our minds create is our second burden.

I thought of this the other day while reading a reporter describe the work of John P. Robinson, an expert on American time-use surveys. Robinson points out that Americans tend to over-estimate how busy they are. Here, for instance, is a figure from one of his early papers.

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 4.45.15 PM

The figure plots the difference between people’s estimate of how many hours they work and how much they actually work. Those who say they work about 40 hours per week, tend to actually work that much. But those who say they work 60 or 70 hours per week tend to grossly over-estimate their actual hours.

“It’s very popular, the feeling that there are too many things going on, that people can’t get in control of their lives and the like,” Robinson says. “But when we look at peoples’ diaries there just doesn’t seem to be the evidence to back it up… It’s a paradox. When you tell people they have thirty or forty hours of free time every week, they don’t want to believe it.”

The solution Robinson advocates, however, is not to better estimate the hours we put in at the office. Rather, the solution is to recognize that we are constantly telling ourselves we’re too busy.

Robinson doesn’t ask us to meditate, or take more vacations, or breathe, or walk in nature, or do anything that will invariably feel like just another item on the to-do list. The answer to feeling oppressively busy, he says, is to stop telling yourself that you’re oppressively busy, because the truth is that we are all much less busy than we think we are.

On one level, Robinson’s work is just a matter of people thinking they are busier than they actually are. On another level, however, what he’s really describing is people telling themselves a story that is worse than the reality. That story is a second burden. We ought to let it go.