Friday, July 28, 2017

A Spirituality of Doing Nothing

- At the Desert Retreat House -

In the middle of this busy vacation season, an article in the “travel section” of the New York Times offered some advice about how to best prepare for a summer vacation.  When I first saw the article, I was expecting to find various “tips” about how to pack a suitcase or perhaps how to find the best hotels; instead the article suggested that if you really want to enjoy your time away this summer, you need to prepare for it by practicing how to do nothing.

While it may seem odd, this advice actually made a great deal of sense to me. Most people nowadays have a very hard time “doing nothing,” especially when they are on vacation. I know plenty of people who come back from their vacations more stressed and tired than before they went. They return home feeling a need for a “vacation from the vacation.”  \

As I think about it, I remember many family vacations in my own life which were anything but restful. Every morning was devoted to busily planning each day’s events so that we could “get in” as many activities as possible. Then, of course, there was the constant activity of moving around from place to place – always “on the go.”  Even when we may have “done nothing” but sit on a beach for a day, I would often be thinking about work I had left behind or planning for events I would be facing when we got home; so, when I was “doing nothing” I was still “doing something.”

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, the practice of “doing nothing” is not only helpful for planning a vacation but may also be very helpful on a spiritual journey. Many people approach their spiritual life with a long “to do” list in hand, lots of “stuff” that they need to “get in” – going to church, saying all the right prayers, spiritual reading, engaging in a daily meditation time with all the proper breathing techniques. On a spiritual path, many people find that they must always be “doing something,” and when that happens it’s pretty hard to sit in the moment with an uncluttered mind and “take in” all the revelations the moment has to offer.

I am reminded of an article from a Buddhist magazine written by a Zen monk who talked about the Zen spiritual practice of “sitting and staring.”  In this practice you find a quiet place, clear the mind, and you do nothing, you just “sit and stare” - no prayers, no meditation techniques, no requited reading.

In the article the monk observed:

Lots of folks may think that they have better things to do
and better things to think about
rather than doing nothing.
But when I “sit and stare”
I am paying attention to my life
and when I do that I always discover something truly wonderful.
Our regular ordinary lives are incredibly joyful-
amazingly, astoundingly, relentlessly joyful.

It seems to me that this summer vacation season is a really good time to more carefully develop a “spirituality of doing nothing.”  Maybe summertime is a good season to learn how to “sit and stare.”

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