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

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.

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, for example, worked 1 days 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 6 days a week free to work on your garden, raise your animals and play with your children.

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 that they were back then.

Hodgkinson is my age and the editor of the excellent Idler magazine. His answer to this back-breaking cycle of covert feudalism that the puritan work ethic has loaded us with is idleness. 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 tag line of the book 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 acually ask: does this way of living really 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.

Sitting crosslegged and just breathing is a much more radical thing that 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 chidren and a scorching hole in the Ozone layer?

The Buddha was quite clear about the need to disentagle. Meditation is all about dismantling of 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.

Just allowing ourselves a 20 minute breather twice a day is the cold-shower of reality that stops us walking sleepy-eyed into a hypnotic life of believing the hype. And those 2 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 an Apple ad or a shop pumping out caffeine fumes has planted that desire in my head. And noticing it, 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 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 an truely idle Christmas!


  1. Valerie

    December 9, 2006 at 5:10 pm

    Bravo. I don’t think its the idleness so much as not
    getting caught up in all the hype and crap that surrounds
    us. Idleness is just the down time from doing what we
    need to survive and get along in this century. I have a
    nice house, its not a mansion and I didn’t kill myself
    for years working to pay a mortgage on something that I
    really didn’t need. I drive around and wonder who is
    building these excessive houses in my town and what they
    do to afford them. I like my idle time. Thank you very
    much. Glad to hear you’ve come over from the dark side
    Alistair. Material things aren’t everything. Happy Holidays
    to you and yours and have a Brilliant New Year.

  2. Rick

    December 10, 2006 at 3:55 pm

    As I type, I’m printing out this essay. I’ll put it up somewhere to remind myself that this is how to be. Thanks Alistair & have A Merrie Christmas!

  3. Albert

    December 10, 2006 at 8:18 pm

    your essay is very depressing you sound like a sad man inside
    buck up and pay a visit to Come Dancing its good this year.
    And I do wish you people living over the pond would refrain from wishing a happy holiday when you mean Christmas

  4. steve

    December 10, 2006 at 9:10 pm

    Albert – depressing? surely can’t be serious! Maybe my irony detector is on the blink… although you *may* have a point about Come Dancing…
    It’s the “plasma telly” syndrome isn’t it? Everyones got to have one and not only that, its got to be bigger than everyone else’s. Plasma envy. The word “idle” is seen as a pejorative term, but really, is it a bad thing not to consume constantly?
    Anyway, thanks Alistair for an interesting essay and for using the word “fructificant”. Marvelous.

  5. David Jacques

    December 11, 2006 at 4:09 am

    Alistair, you are just so delightful!

  6. Valerie W,

    December 11, 2006 at 3:57 pm

    Albert does everyone in your country celebrate Christmas?
    I do, but I have a niece and nephew who celebrate Chanukah.
    So covering all my bases and not wanting to exclude anyone,
    I wished a Happy Holiday. But if you wish just for you Albert
    MERRY CHRISTMAS and may the Joy of the Christ Child be with
    you all year. And a Happy New Year to all.

  7. st

    December 11, 2006 at 5:25 pm

    I have learned the hard way in my 20’s and 30’s but
    realized in my 40’s that it is not about the quanity of
    life but the quality of life. I don’t need all the fancy
    gadgets or latest greatest inventions, but to be happy and
    accept what is taken for granted everyday. To enjoy the
    sunrise or sunset to be able to see the beauty in life
    itself. I enjoy taking walks and soaking in all the
    scenery and just smile and be happy that I am alive and
    can rejoice in the simple things.
    Have a great Holiday and thanks for sharing.

  8. Kelly

    December 11, 2006 at 11:11 pm

    I simply must read this book. My life can be so, well, manic at times. And though I once deluded myself that the pace would slacken as I matured and learned to better accomodate it, that’s not exactly how it’s panned out. I’ve lot a few people of late who mattered a great deal to me, and I think back over their lives, the never-ending races they ran. I don’t want that to be me when my race is done.

  9. Peter B.

    December 14, 2006 at 1:03 pm

    Alistair- I’ve never posted a comment before as I prefer the direct route but felt compelled just now to jot a little something down. How funny that you and I have been struggling with the same materialism issues 6,000 miles apart. Since we returned from Brazil last spring my entire framework for monetary prioritization has changed. There are still bumps in the road. I still find (not that you’d be surprised by this) that shoes for me and blankets for my horse are my big weaknesses. How many pair of shoes do I REALLY need? Apparently (as I was informed last Sunday by the ever-suffering and ever-wonderful Paul)the magic number is 62 . Indy’s blanket count is up to 9. ( He is a bit of a mud-wallower though, and with the rains having started here in California there are always several in the laundry.) Regardless, the winds of change are blowing, and I like the direction in which they are taking me. Oh…and by the way. I finally figured out how to make my singing bowl sing!
    Hugs from S.F.

  10. vang

    December 26, 2006 at 11:31 pm

    Happy Holidays you delicious piece of Perfection!

  11. Daniel Murray

    December 28, 2006 at 7:04 pm

    A very wise friend told me once “the price you pay for getting something is not only financial but the ‘desire’ to actually have it. Because once you get it…you don’t desire to have it with the same intensity that you once did (when it wasn’t yet yours to have).”

    As I was purging my closets and storage space this past month, I can tell you I was frequented by the thought “what in the hell possessed me to buy ____? What was I thinking?”

    I felt like a strange man in a strange place: my own cluttered existence.

    And, then, there is the lovely rule of life my cautious mother planted in me years ago: “If you buy it, you will have to dust it for the rest of your life.”

    Oh…her words have brought reason and sobriety to many wanderings around stores: few things are worth dusting, or having dusted, for the remaining days of my life in the physical realm.

    More than any other reasoning…it is the vision of me making sure that whatever it is that I trot on home will remain dust-free that sobers my I-must-have-this urges.

    There is an exception to this: I do give myself many, many things in meditation. I go all out with indulgences in meditation. (Then again, it is a realm where dust does not rule.)

    These are such fun meditations too. I put on some of my favorite French pop music — perfect because my French is so bad that I’m not at all distracted by the lyrics — headphones, get in my meditation position, and just let myself have it all. Gloriously.

    I not only get castles and cars and planes and boats and gorgeous vacations, I become them: it is a meditation, so I can. It’s quite fascinating actually to see a grand mansion, then become the grand mansion — let myself actually evaporate into what it is that attracts me…and become it.

    In meditation, by giving myself every whim, it frees me.

    I’ve found a hidden talent for such mental goings on too: I barely have to close my eyes and I can be a chair or a bamboo floor. (Oh…there’s a fun thought: I haven’t been a floor in a while.)

    An aside here, I have a fascinating friend who once suggested that a good way to prepare for a trip — a small, daily one or a large adventure — was to go into meditation and see it: see the car, the plane…I was going to take; see the road or airspace; see the destination; then…be the car…be the road…be the destination…and…be the trip itself. Allow it to be fun. Then, pop out of the meditation, and sally forth.

    Alistair, your words have certainly popped open my thoughts this morning. Thank you for allowing the liberty here to do just that.

    Have a great 2007,


  12. Katrina

    January 10, 2007 at 3:54 am

    Good Evening Alistair — nice blog!

    I have to say I decided years ago I was tired of paying the $3-$4 USD a day to get my “fix” of java from Starbucks Coffee, so I did the only sensible thing…I bought myself a cappuccino maker! At least I THOUGHT it was sensible!

    Now I realize the $225 spent on the thing was ridiculous, as it’s big, in the way, a pain to use, a pain to clean, and so instead of all the hassle — I just go to Starbucks to pick up my cappuccino! Daniel Murray’s mother was a wise woman…now all I do is dust the thing off.

    I think I need to chuck the thing into the trash…and stop drinking coffee.

    Anyway – thanks for your thoughts; after almost losing my husband from a heart attack last year, and our house this year, my outlook on life, and on those things important and truly meaningful, have certainly changed. I’ll be back to read your blog!

    Regards and Happy New Year,

  13. Do Buddhists Watch Telly? » Suspended in time, between pole and tropic / When the short day is brightest

    January 15, 2007 at 1:44 am

    […] There were 2 symmetrical books this year. In May I started reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron which completely topsy-turvyfied my thinking about pleasure and creativity and God. And in December this year, I read Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Free which prepared me totally for the joys of winter, of ‘leaning on the gatepost’ as he describes it: standing in the cold, wet air and just listening to birdsong or your neighbour’s radio. Doing nothing. […]

  14. TL

    February 1, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    Dear Alistair,
    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. I’m reading the Artist’s Way right now and enjoyed your essay so much, I’ve shared with with my friends. They have been moved and inspired to declutter their spaces. We are all about re-evaluting our relationships to the world and to our consuming!
    Thanks again. I hope you had a HAPPY Holiday season and will have a wonderful 2007!

  15. Karen

    March 16, 2007 at 12:06 am

    I watch you on BBC America almost daily and quite enjoy your refreshing way.

    Bless you…

    An understanding friend.

  16. Mindsprings » Blog Archive » Suspended in time, between pole and tropic / When the short day is brightest

    August 1, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    […] about pleasure and creativity and God. And in December this year, I read Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Free which prepared me totally for the joys of winter, of ‘leaning on the gatepost’ as he […]

  17. Zel

    October 27, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    fructificant – a colorful word, indeed – albeit riddled with smidgen of smugness and self-importance!

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