Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Practice of Doing Nothing

"Tranquility"
- the desert at dusk -

A few days ago I came across a fascinating article in the “travel section” of the New York Times, offering advice about how to prepare for a summer vacation.  I was expecting an article about what to pack, where to go, what to see, things to do while away on vacation this summer; instead the article suggested that if you really want to enjoy your time away you need to prepare for it by practicing how to do nothing.


I personally know plenty of people who come back from their vacations more stressed and tired than before they went ( I have been one of those people), returning home and feeling a need for a “vacation from the vacation.”  I guess that this is not so surprising since, for many people, their time away is devoted to busily planning each days events, “getting in” as many activities as possible, perhaps consumed with thoughts about the work left behind at home. Then there is the constant reliance on the ever-present media devices, smart-phones with the emails and texts that don’t end just because you are away for a few weeks.

This is why that article about preparing for a vacation made such sense to me - before going away on a vacation, you have to learn what “doing nothing” is all about and then spend some time practicing it.

The article suggested:

Letting go is something you have to practice on a daily basis.
This entails being deliberate, at some point in each day,
about shifting out of the work mode and keeping the eternal to-do list at bay.
Maybe you can turn off your devices for an hour or two, or
take a walk or sit at your desk and close your eyes for 10 minutes,
or practice some kind of meditation to slow the mind.

As I think about it, many if not most of us usually operate in a “work mode” even if we aren’t at work or don’t have a job, always carrying around a “to do list” in our minds. Most of us are always busy “doing stuff” stuff, or preparing to do other stuff- very rarely just sitting with an uncluttered mind, doing nothing.

I remember a rather humorous observation I read a while back in which a mom reflects on the constantly busy life of her 5th grade child:

My kid asks me ‘When are we leaving mom?’
‘In 20 minutes’ I say, ‘so get ready.’
He answers me, ‘Mom, do I have some time not to get ready?’
That’s the conversation I had with my fifth grader,
the implication being that he’s constantly getting ready for the next activity
and he wanted just a little time to not get ready,
to do nothing,
to flop on the couch for a while and play with his elbow

It seems to me that since so many of us are always in the mode of “getting ready,” we shouldn’t expect vacation time to be any different from how we have learned to live our everyday lives, and that’s precisely why people need to practice for their vacations by learning how to take some time to “do nothing.”

I sometimes wonder if our constant need to be so busy, our “to-do lists” always in hand,  is perhaps a symptom of a need to be in control, stemming from a fear of what may happen if we are not in control.

Priest and author, Anthony DeMello, once observed:

It’s not that we are afraid of the unknown,
what we really fear is the is the loss of the known.
Many people don’t want to ‘wake up,’ they don’t really want to be happy
because they are afraid of happiness.

In this vacation season,  I wonder if many of us still insist on clinging to our old familiar ways even when we are away because we are afraid of what might happen if we “let go” - maybe we are afraid of happiness?

1 comment:

  1. It's an interesting one. While camping last year we had vast stretches of time with nothing planned and my overriding fear was of boredom. Yet what came into the space of boredom was spontaneity and just hanging out together in that way that we rarely do. It may sound odd but in our busy culture it might even be worthwhile having some 'planned spontaneity' time...where we do actually do nothing and just remain open to whatever occurs. xxxx

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