17 Feb 2019

Josh Cohen: renewing the feeling of joy in not doing anything

From Sunday Morning, 11:04 am on 17 February 2019

We have lost our way when it comes to chilling out and we shouldn't feel guilty about slacking off, a psychoanalyst says.

Professor Josh Cohen is a psychoanalyst and a professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths, University of London. His new book is called Not Working. Why We have To Stop.

He thinks people have lost the ability to simply stay at home, not achieving anything in particular.

Josh Cohen

Josh Cohen Photo: Youtube

He says many people feel guilty when they're not busy going out or filling their days with appointments or binge-watching televisions series.

He told Jim Mora he’s just as bad as the rest of us at what he calls stopping.

“I feel and participate in all the anxieties I’m writing about. I am aware my time can feel like a sort of very small enclave under siege constantly from one demand or another.

"There are all these masters ranging around the circle and I have to turn around and serve them all at some point.”

The demands of modernity have increasingly encroached and capitalised time and space, but Cohen says we’re now in an era where free time and relaxation is also taken up with the demands of distraction. There’s pressure, he says, on people to be up-to-date with the latest television series, film, or album so that they’re not left out of conversation.

“We think of our time not as a possession that is ours to dispose of as we like, including not at all, but as something which is leased to the world… we feel that really every moment we have that’s unclaimed is somehow not validated, not legitimate.”

Cohen says that this mindset has become internalised and people are scornful of what they perceive as laziness.

“It’s one thing if that’s the attitude of the grasping rapacious boss or some arm of the state, and we – the ordinary people – can feel that our time is our own and we want to claim it back. But when that sense of guilt and shame around unused time actually becomes part of our mentality. When we don’t need an external boss to harangue us because we’re actually doing such a great job of it ourselves, that’s when that derision, that sense of contempt for just stopping, for not being task oriented really becomes dangerous to our psychic and spiritual health.”

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Photo: 123RF

Perhaps one of the most well-known symptoms of this pressure to maximise our available time is burnout which is characterised not only by exhaustion, but the inability to relax at all.

Exhaustion, Cohen says, can be quite a pleasurable experience. Looking forward to a long restorative sleep after a hard day’s work is satisfying and comforting. Burnout, on the other hand, induces a “state of innervation” where one is replete with exhaustion but totally unable to sit still.

Therefore, an entire industry has emerged around the demand to relax and be “mindful”, but that is also becoming part of the loop in which our time is claimed.

“If one can genuinely carve out time to be mindful and really immerse oneself in a state of stillness and reflection – physical as well as mental – that’s one thing. The problem is that it quickly becomes another obligation that we have to fulfil. It crosses from the side of aimlessness and stillness and quickly gets swallowed up into the realm of activity and task orientation.”

Cohen gives the example of corporate offices mandating mindfulness sessions, which not only makes it another item on a to-do list, it can also take on a competitive aspect.

“These sorts of exercises in mindfulness and meditation become infused with anxious self-reproaches for not being mindful enough.”

Disengaging and finding a quiet place in the world where one can live cheaply is very difficult and it takes a sacrifices and inner discipline to renounce competition for status, recognition and career success. Cohen says. For many people, they simply don’t see a way out.

“What I’m finding in the consulting room is that ordinary people in the grip of this compulsion - in a way they’ve chosen this life - but there comes a point where they don’t feel they’ve chosen it, that it’s chosen them, that it is their master now.”