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the human group - session 10 - the nobility of toil and praising idleness

What is essential in life and is it connected with the work we do?

Why do we work?

Why do we value earning over spending?

In this discussion we explored work and idleness.

The discussion took a bit of time to break the ice and fall into flow. We cherry picked ideas and one human described this as ‘mental masturbation’ and ‘wishy washy’, this briefly led into the ‘I’ and ‘we’ discussion. Fortunately we pulled ourselves back into the topic of work and idleness.

We discussed the security of work and the fear and guilt associated with the expectation to work.

‘What do you do for a crust?’

Is the security aspect just another fear based justification? Can we really be secure, in or out of employment? Does having a clear career path or identity simply build a complete illusion of security and order and do we do this to satisfy ourselves or external expectations?

One human said that they only work when the joy aligns with the task and another said that it is about finding the joy within the task. The suffering seems to occur, or even the ‘work’ when we pay no attention or curiosity or play to the process and focus narrowly and impatiently upon the desired or expected outcome.

This dynamic could be seen within the group as some humans were frustrated with the process because it did not seem to satisfy their expectations built from the set topic. While others were enjoying the nuance of conversation, expression and behaviour that was occurring within the process. One human described it as a dance and previously we have described discussion with the analogy of the ‘jam’.

Two differences in focal points were at play and they can be seen through work, and idleness. Work is an active action, whilst idleness sits within a space of receptivity. Each can have negative meanings attached to them. Take the following story that one human offered to the group.

There is the ant and the grasshopper. The grasshopper hops about, playing her fiddle and living in the moment. While the ant works diligently to save enough food for winter. When the winter comes along the ants eat and enjoy the rewards of their labour. The grasshopper looks in all cold and hungry and asks the ants if she can join. One story the ants say ‘no’, another they say ‘yes’.

Would you invite the grasshopper in for dinner?

This all depends on our appreciation of difference and an understanding of the diverse methods in which to contribute. We have ignored the value of the grasshopper just as we have ignored the necessity of a healthy ecosystem. We now realise that our lives depend on it. I will go as far as to say our lives also depend on characters like the grasshopper.

If we valued the artists, the poets and philosophers as respectable contributions to society, then perhaps the ants would let them in to enjoy the feast. Presently we have a quantifiable system of value called the economy and many values are left out of this system or are not included in their entirety. This has in turn affected our individual perspective on what is valuable and what isn’t, losing respect for the contributions of the travelling vagrant, philosopher, poet and musician. Only when their work and experience is in demand are they respected for their ‘work’. This is an unfortunate disservice to our society at large. We need the grasshopper. I grew up with my parents telling me that being an artist is a hard life but I would say that a life of toil is a hard life too. Hard for the soul and the unique expression of our being. Life is hard but that’s part of the beauty.

What is the contribution of idleness? Being in the moment and moving with the momentum of the present induces a listening to the external and the internal. A curiosity and play emerges as the process becomes the joy and the destination remains unknown. Creation springs forth from such idleness, awareness and play. Producing works of art with no intended functional purpose but simply a product of fascination within the process of the present. The contribution is more qualitative and living rather than quantitive and static. The grasshopper through her being-ness and her art stimulates thought, wonder and perplexion. Consequently inspiring the worker ants to take their working ethic in different directions, shaping the culture and perspective of society.

What about bringing joy to the process of menial and mundane tasks? How do we create an art from our work and work from our art?

This starts to lead into the internal response, questioning our reactive story telling shading experience and tasks with a negatively charged lens. Can we change the story and bring the honourable artists respect of process and creation to the bricklayer, accountant and the cleaner?

Japanese culture is known to have combined art with the mundanity of folding sheets, raking the garden or drinking tea, into complex yet simple, meditative processes that have incredibly aesthetic outcomes.

Idleness can teach us how to be curious and playful in the present moment. Passing through the threshold of boredom and desired habitual motions we naturally come to a state of present observation and listening as there isn’t anything else. Consequently from this process, in the words of Krishnamurti, we become first hand people, learning through first hand experience by responding to the present. Responding from habit, knowledge, authority all creates second hand people dominated by conceptual stories built upon the past rather than first response to the present stimulus (1). Perhaps the suffering within work comes from the second hand knowledge and story we paste over the process whilst being so focused on the end product; whether it is the end of the working day/week or finishing a task.

Can being present within the standard 9 to 5 bring a quality to the process that can not only affect the outcome but the everyday state of consciousness?

Once again the desired future vision of work and idleness is a complementary one. A society that values idleness could bring reflection, innovation and the resolution for change to the nobility of work. A world in which everyone understands that they are makers creating art within their chosen craft and environment.

Join the human group next week at the Corner Palm for a discussion on ‘consent and wanting’. What do we want and how can we ask for it?


1. Krishnamurti, Jiddhu. 1969. ‘Freedom from the Known’. United States. Ebury Publishing.

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