The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Art of Lying Fallow: Psychoanalyst Masud Khan on the Existential Salve for the Age of Cultish Productivity and Compulsive Distraction

The Art of Lying Fallow: Psychoanalyst Masud Khan on the Existential Salve for the Age of Cultish Productivity and Compulsive Distraction

I suspect our ability to ask the unanswerable questions that Hannah Arendt knew are the heartbeat of civilization is intimately related to our capacity for dwelling in a particular state of being beyond the realm of our compulsive doing. Bertrand Russell called it “fruitful monotony.” Adam Phillips called it “fertile solitude.” Walt Whitman called it “loafing.” The Buddhist tradition describes it simply as presence. Whatever we may call it, amid a culture of filling the existential void with cultish productivity and an endless stream of dopamine-laced distractions, it is nothing less than a countercultural act of courage and resistance to enact such states of being — states in which our inner voice becomes audible, the voice with which we sing the song of our lives.

The Pakistani-British psychoanalyst Masud Khan (July 21, 1924–June 7, 1989) calls this mode of being “lying fallow” and unfurls its psychological tendrils in a short, brightly penetrating essay included in his 1983 collection Hidden Selves (public library).

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

With an eye to the dictionary definition of fallow as “ground that is well-ploughed and harrowed, but left uncropped for a whole year or more,” Khan considers his choice of compound phrasing:

Through the metaphor of an active verb, I wish to indicate that the mood I am trying to discuss is not one of inertia, listless vacancy or idle quietism of the soul; nor is it a flight from harassed purposiveness and pragmatic action. Lying fallow is a transitional state of experience, a mode of being that is alerted quietude and receptive wakeful lambent consciousness.

Noting the strange deficiency of our language in describing “positive nonconflictual moods” — a language with a vast lexicon for conveying tension and friction — Khan defines lying fallow not as “a neurotic, conflictual, or distress state” but as “a healthy function of the ego in the service of the individual,” one of those “intractably silent states which we associate with the healthy individual.” Radiating from this notion is a reminder that we are infinitely complex totalities forged by a process of slow incubation and incremental becoming, and that how we govern our interiority — how we tend to those processes as they shape us — shapes every outward expression of our lives. Khan writes:

The capacity for lying fallow is a function of the process of personalization in the individual. This process of personalization achieves its sentient wholeness over a slow period of growth, development and acculturation, and its true matrix is a hierarchy of relationships… This is a long process and it is waylaid by many a traumata — personal, familial and social. But if all goes well — and it does, more often than not — what crystallizes and differentiates into the separate status of adult selfhood is a personalized individual with his own privacy, inner reality and sense of relatedness to his social environment.

Noting the extreme cult of the individual in Western society, with its militant focus on self-help and self-improvement, Khan adds:

In this excessive zeal to rescue and comfort the individual, we have perhaps overlooked some of the basic needs of the person to be private, unintegrated and to lie fallow.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If…

Observing that we all experience lying fallow “frequently in fleeting patches” — in our moments of procrastination between tasks, in our states of idleness and our restless sense that we must snap out of this “benignly languid passive mood” — he considers the rewards of surrendering to rather than fleeing from this state:

What does the fallow mood achieve for us? The answer is a paradox: a great deal and nothing. It is a nutrient of the ego and a preparatory state. It supplies the energic substratum for most of our creative efforts, and through it unintegrated, psychic suspended animation… allows for that larval inner experience which distinguishes true psychic creativity from obsessional productiveness.

Lying fallow is, in other words, the antidote to the deadly trap of efficiency. Khan outlines the five features of the fallow state:

  1. A transitional and transient mood
  2. A nonconflictual, noninstinctual, and intellectually uncritical state
  3. A capacity of the ego
  4. An alert wakeful mood — unintegrated, receptive and labile
  5. A largely nonverbal and imagistic state, kinaesthetic in expression

In the history of creative culture, many great and enduring artistic productions have arisen out of this state — evidence that lying fallow is not a form of idleness but “a cogent capacity in a well-established, disciplined and personalized individual.” Half a century after Bertrand Russell admonished that “a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation… in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase,” Khan writes:

Lying fallow is, above all, the proof that a person can be with himself unpurposefully.

Art by Austrian artist Tom Seidmann-Freud — Freud’s niece — from David the Dreamer, 1922

But while lying fallow is the antipode of productivity, it is also, paradoxically, the antipode of leisure. In a passage of extraordinary prescience given our present epoch of endless social media streams supplanting every moment of stillness with a reflexive hit of on-demand entertainment, Khan writes:

It is a strange and uncanny result of urban civilization and the impact of technology on human experience that leisure has become a pursuit and an end in itself. It has gradually become an industry, a profession and an imperative social need of the individuals in modern societies. Everyone strives for more and more leisure and knows less and less what to do with it. Hence the emergence of a colossal trade in organizing people’s leisure. This need is perhaps one of the real absurdities of our existence today, and it reflects the decay of some crucial value-systems… in all types and kinds of human beings. The pursuit of frantic leisure… is perhaps one of the most dissipating qualities of the technical cultures. The individual on whom leisure has been imposed in massive doses, and who has little capacity to deal with it, then searches for distractions that will fill this vacuum… A great deal of the distress and psychic conflict that we see clinically… is the result of a warped and erroneous expectancy of human nature and existence. It is the omnipresent fallacy of our age that all life should be fun and that all time should be made available to enjoy this fun. The result is apathy, discontent and pseudo-neurosis.


A craving for leisure, and the concomitant yearning for distractions to fill the void of given-leisure, is the result of our failure to understand the role and function of the need to lie fallow in the human psyche and personality… We have industriously misinformed ourselves about the essentials of human nature. We have confused the necessity to relieve human poverty and misery with the demand that all life should be fun and kicks. The entertainment media of modern cultures have further exploited this leisure void for commercial gain and flooded citizens with ready-made switchable distractions, so that no awareness of the need to develop personal resources to cope with fallow states can actualize as private experience.

The consequence, Khan cautions, is that we have developed a narcissistic personality style — one that makes myriad outward demands on the world with “little comprehension of the necessity of the responsibility for an inner relation to its own self.” Under this warping of the soul, we have come to our core existential problems — loneliness, misery, grief, alienation — “with no inkling of insight into the person’s primary human responsibility for a commitment to sustain and nourish himself.” Lying fallow is how we begin to nourish ourselves, how we begin to take responsibility for ourselves as transient miracles of aliveness and creative agents of destiny.

Complement with May Sarton’s stunning poem about the relationship between solitude, presence, and love and Hermann Hesse on solitude and how to find your destiny, then revisit two centuries of titanic minds, from Kierkegaard to Sontag, on the spiritual and creative rewards of boredom.

Published April 11, 2023




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