Friday, July 16, 2010


Lin Yutang

"Oh wise humanity, terribly wise humanity!
Of thee I sing.
How inscrutable is the civilization where 
men toil and work and worry their hair gray 
to get a living and forget to play"

As readers of my previous posting on Henry Miller will recognize, I am attracted to writers who bravely challenge conventional wisdom and offer unique perspectives on issues related to the quality of our lives.  Another writer that falls within this category is the Chinese scholar and philosopher, Lin Yutang, who wrote forty books in English, including the 1937 classic, The Importance of Living.

One of the fascinating subjects addressed in The Importance of Living is the value of loafing and how that value is being eroded by western civilization's ever-growing obsession with work.  From a western perspective, this may seem a bit odd.  Why, one might ask, would a successful author, scholar, translator, and philosopher question the western work ethic and extol the virtues of loafing?  The answer lies the inability of many westerners to appreciate the virtues of loafing, idleness, and other forms of leisure that place more importance on being than on doing or possessing.

In advanced western countries, especially America, we are seemingly obsessed with work, not just the work that is required to provide our daily bread, but work that, according to Yutang, is driven by "duties, responsibilities, fears, inhibitions and ambitions."  It is work "born not of nature, but of human society."  We are also obsessed with the process of constantly trying to improve things, our expectations being that improvement will eventually lead to perfection, and that perfection, in turn, will lead to greater happiness. We have mastered the noble art of getting things done, but we have remained oblivious to what Yutang calls "the nobler art of leaving things undone."

This constant drumbeat of work-work-work leaves little or no time for loafing, but  that  is of little concern to most Americans because "loafing," unlike "work," does not fall within the our definition of a "productive life;" nor is it considered to be a path to wisdom or a source of creativity.  To the contrary, loafing is usually regarded as unproductive behavior that merits discouragement, rather than encouragement.  On a personal level, I have found that many Americans, if not most, are uncomfortable with the prospect of being seen "loafing around doing nothing," and once discovered in that mode, the individual is likely to be somewhat embarrassed and proffer an apology.

The Asian concept of loafing is quite different from that employed by western countries.  Loafing is considered to be productive, not unproductive, because it is the bedrock from which culture, including all wisdom and art, is produced.  Again, listen to what Yutang has to say:
Culture . . . is essentially a product of leisure. The art of culture is therefore essentially the art of loafing.  From the Chinese point of view, the man who is wisely idle is the most cultured man. For there seems to be a philosophic contradiction between being busy and being wise. Those who are wise won't be busy, and those who are too busy can't be wise.  The wisest man is therefore he who loafs most gracefully.
Although loafing is often treated by westerners as an inferior use on one's mind, it  has been regarded in China as an achievement of high-mindedness.  "This highmindenness," according to Yutang, "came from, and was inevitably associated with, a certain sense of detachment toward the drama of life; it came from the quality of being able to see through life's ambitions and follies and the temptations of fame and wealth."

Yutang was not opposed to to meaningful work; nor was he opposed to the idea of progress.  The point that he was making is simply that neither work nor progress should deprive humanity of "the divine desire for loafing," time to create, time to experience the world in all of its glory, time to be fully human.  Again, Yutang:
There is always plenty of life to enjoy for a man who is determined to enjoy it. If men fail to enjoy this earthly existence we have, it is because they do not love life sufficiently and allow it to be turned into a humdrum routine existence.  Laotse has been wrongly accused of being hostile to life; on the other hand, I think he taught the renunciation of the life of the world exactly because he loved life all too tenderly, to allow the art of living to degenerate into the mere business of living.
Let us all hope that we can find the proper balance in life -- to do meaningful work, for sure, but to also reserve time for loafing, time for each person to meet himself or herself face to face, time to experience the natural world in all of its splendor and glory.


  1. I think I'm going to like Lin Yutang, and I thank you for introducing me to him.

    I've never understood why people are so proud to declare how busy they are. Two things I've always disliked: being busy and being in a rush. When I find myself in either state I feel I've failed at the art of living. I think we suffer terribly when we make a virtue out of busyness and view loafing as a worthless pursuit engaged in only by worthless people. When I see people consumed by work they do not love, or racing around from activity to activity stressed and unhappy I always wonder from what they are so desperate to distract themselves.

    I've been interested in how our over-the-top work ethic has become bound up with our notion of self-worth ever since I read The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work by Joanne Ciulla, a book that would be of interest to anyone wishing to become "he who loafs most gracefully," as would be The Art of Being by Erich Fromm.

  2. What is accomplishment? I like this growing Asian view of things growing in me. Picturing Thoreau sitting back on the haunches of his chair, in his doorway, looking out. For a the whole of a morning. That's accomplishment.

    (My word verification is: hesse)

  3. Brilliant! So much to commiserate with you about here, but ... I am taking a break - loafing actually. :-)

  4. To Fireweed Meadow --

    Thanks for the comments. You and I are kindred spirits on this issue. There is truly an art to living, and it has nothing to do with achieving status or making money.

    I have not read the Ciulla book, but it sounds interesting. I plan to check out Amazon and see if it's still available. Thanks again for the thoughtful comments.

  5. To Ruth,

    I have a very Zen view of accomplishment. It is possible to accomplish everything by accomplishing nothing. I also agree with you about Thoreau.

  6. To Bonnie,

    Thanks for the comments, and I am delighted that you are doing some serious loafing.

  7. I think that there's a question here of how we label things automatically as positive or negative by the words that we choose. If we label an activity as leisure it is not as "bad" as loafing.
    I understand loafing as an activity where we are not necessary looking for acheivement or accomplishment, although it often comes in some form. If I potter in the garden or walk with the dog I could be loafing (in my definition). However when I look in a dictionary I find it associated with being lazy and idle.
    "When I use a word, it means what I want it to mean".
    I need to look more closely at what Yutung or Joanne Ciulla have to say, perhaps loaf with them for a while.
    Thank you for making me think.

  8. It looks like a great book, but I probably won't have time to read it. :)

    I read somewhere that one should strive to make one's work one's hobby and one's house one's holiday home.

    And one of the biggest enemies of a life well lived is debt - people have to work even harder than they otherwise would to earn the money to pay for the money they've already bought.

  9. To Tramp,

    Puttering in your garden and walking your dog are two of the highest forms of loafing. Each reflects what the Chinese call "high-mindedness." They may not be productive in terms of money and achievement, but they certainly produce peace, contentment, and an appreciation for life.

  10. To Dominic,

    Well said, Dominic. Debt is one of the biggest enemies of life. Another, I think is all of the things we acquire with that debt. A simple life stands a better chance of being a well-lived life, but how do we keep it simple in this money-crazed, materialistic world? Ah, there lies the rub. A good place to begin might be, as you suggest, to make one's hobby one's work and one's house one's holiday home.

  11. Another excellent, and wise, post, George, and one that chimes profoundly with me - as it obviously has done with many of your readers. It's so good to think afresh about words like 'work', leisure', 'idleness' etc. I like Dominic's remark about making one's hobby one's work and one's house one's holiday home - said something similar myself a while back in a reply to a comment.

    'Loafing is considered to be productive, not unproductive, because it is the bedrock from which culture, including all wisdom and art, is produced.' Indeed.

    'What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare?' WH DAVIES (author of that book 'Autobiography of a Super-tramp).

    Agree with Fireweed about the Erich Fromm book.

  12. To Solitary Walker,

    Thanks for the nice comments, Robert. I chose to write about this subject because I think it is high time for everyone to reconsider the role of work in our lives. At some level, work is both necessary and rewarding. When we lose sight of the purpose of work, however, and find ourselves driven by some abstract concept that work is the only noble activity, we run the risk of losing the lives we are supposed to be living. I am reminded of the old definition of insanity -- the doubling of one's efforts upon losing sight of one's purpose.

  13. I think it is the case with a lot of us here in the UK that we were brought up when the Victorian 'work ethic' was still very real. I remember if I was caught reading a book during the day my mother would ask if I could find something more useful to do. Those sort of comments stay with one and I still tend to feel a creeping guilt if I read before sundown!

  14. To Weaver,

    I've had similar experiences, Weaver. It was once suggested to me that the purchase of books was a waste of money that should be saved for the purchase of property. I've stayed with books, however, and they have taught me more that property could ever teach. Can anything be more useful than reading a good book, especially one that draws the reader into the full experience of life? I, for one, will forgive you if you dare to read before sundown.

  15. What a good post. I've read Lin Yutang before, but not for years and am happy to be reminded of his ideas. This one seems very true because it is when we are quietly being aware of what simply is that we can be most happy, and feed the creative side of ourselves. Julie Cameron has something she calls "the artist date" you have with yourself, which can be anything, really, that you do to build up experience that nourishes the spirit. But any spontaneous loafing does this, if you pay attention.

  16. To Kristi,

    Thanks for the nice comments, Kristi. It's nice to have a new visitor to my blog. It sounds as if you have already discovered first hand the myriad benefits of loafing mindfully.

  17. Well, I loafed around quite a bit before making it over to this enriching post, and now I will loiter here happily and reread it. As somewhat of a workaholic myself, the philosophy expounded here is bracing and, probably, sorely needed. This seems to dovetail nicely with the so-called "go slow" movement that seems to be gaining more and more adherents (though, sadly, not as many practitioners) here in Europe.

  18. Lorenzo,

    Thanks for the comments. I'm quite sure that a man of your talent and dedication could master the art of loafing. Isn't this the bedrock from which all good art springs?

  19. This is my favorite practice ... in between bouts of .. idleness.

  20. From David Hinton's superb .." The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan."
    idleness: Etymologically, the character for idleness ( hsien ) connotes " profound serenity and quietness, "its pictographic elements rendering moonlight shining through open courtyard gates. This idleness is a kind of meditative participation in the spontaneous burgeoning forth of occurrence, free of the self-consious intention that seems to separate us from that process. In idleness, daily life becomes the essence of spiritual practice.

  21. To Abarefootboy,

    Thanks for visiting my blog, and especially for that quote from David HInton's "The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan. I'm glad that you appreciate both the pleasure and the wisdom of loafing.

  22. The harder you work, the more seriously you should take your loafing.
    I work hard in my job six days a week, 52 weeks a year (for the last five) - but nothing like as hard as I work on projects at home.
    So on the very rare occasions that I actually do loaf (by say, watching non-prerecorded TV on the sofa) , I find it intensely relaxing and powerfully rechargative.

  23. To Anonymous,

    Glad you found something of value in this piece. It sounds like you could use a little more loafing.

  24. Thanks for this blog post. I just returned from 2 1/2 days of loafing on Sapelo island. I lead a Sunday service and decided loafing is a practice of going within and would design my topic around it. Decided I would see what others thought, and was pleasantly surprised at the similarities. I have been thinking of my childhood and how doodlebugs were the Southern Zen gardening.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Great Blue Heron. Happy to know that you found something here that resonates with you.