The Art of Doing Nothing: Stop, Enjoy, Go Slow

In our frantic world, doing nothing is hard work.  But I’m getting better at it.  Ironically, less than a generation or two ago, people were hard-pressed to find something to do.  With only a few TV channels (or none) and no internet, video games, or cell phones, there was a lot more front-porch sitting, hammock swinging, tree climbing, stone skipping, and overall hanging out.  These days, people think it is a crime to do nothing.  But if you don’t take time to do nothing, you might forget you’re alive.
Yesterday my three kids and I managed to do nothing for almost three hours!  It was great.  We went to the woods did absolutely nothing of value. We barely even exercised.  We hardly walked more than a half of a mile, roughly moving at the speed of a turtle.  We meandered through a grove of trees by the Mississippi, coming out on a beach.  Then we strolled back and forth down the river, heading back into the woods to climb trees and swing from vines.  My kids skipped stones, made bark boats to push into the current, and carved sticks.  My daughter filled her hat with sand and poured it over her head.  Later, she left quite a ring in the bathtub.

I sat for much of the time and resisted my usual urge to push them forward, get them moving, and rally them to the next spot. It was a real accomplishment for me to move that slowly.  I tend to be a task master.  It’s the teacher in me. When I see kids lying around, I want to engage them in something.  When I have five free minutes at home, I try to squeeze in a magazine article or a podcast.  My wife and I sometimes use a whiteboard to make a schedule for the day, to remind our boys to do all their tasks, piano, silent-reading, room-cleaning.

But I’ve been practicing doing nothing for a couple months now, and I’m getting better at it. In our world, it takes real practice to stop and enjoy the moment.  To sit and let things be.  To let kids get dirty.  Even meditation, which I love, becomes a task sometimes, with a timer and a goal.

We forget to stop, enjoy, breath, and contemplate.

Doing nothing is an essential part of living, because only when we stop and do nothing can we take in fully the abundance and wonder of being alive.

I’m a firm believer that anxiety, ADHD, sleep disorders, and many of our other modern maladies are environmental.  All of us are bombarded with more stimulation in one day than many of our ancestors faced in a lifetime.  Research has shown that our bodies exist in a constant state of fight or flight.  The stress reaction our ancestors used to handle the occasional wild animal or tribal war we now use constantly to navigate our mad-paced world. When we live in this fast pace, we can fall into a cycle of needing constant stimulation.  We are always amped up.  If there’s nothing on TV, we check the internet, or we play a video game; even grabbing a book is a form of stimulation (albeit, one I recommend).

But there is a time for doing nothing, for moving very slowly.  By sitting and doing nothing, we open up space in our head for deeper forms of contemplation.  We rest our bodies and minds, giving them a break from fight or flight reactions.  We give our brain a chance to pause and deal with complex problems, working casually in the background while we relax in the foreground. Doing nothing, moving slow, is essential for learning to enjoy, really enjoy, instead of treating life like a long to-do list.

Ideas for doing nothing:

  • Sit on a porch or deck. No book or magazine or ipod necessary.  Just sit and gaze.
  • Take a slow walk, a stroll, a wandering, through a natural area. (Not all who wander are lost!)
  • Stare at a fish tank (many of us keep fish, but how often do we hang out with the fish?)
  • Cuddle with your kids.  Tickle, laugh, joke, goof around.
  • Go to a zoo, but instead of touring, sit and watch one animal for a significant amount of time.
  • Climb a tree and hang out on a branch.
  • Sit at a coffee shop and watch people.  Walk around a busy city landscape and just hang out.

Most importantly, even if you can’t give up your addiction to always doing something, make sure your kids have a chance to do nothing. We keep our kids very busy these days. But doing nothing, picking up rocks, looking for worms, rolling in the grass, hanging from a tree, is essential to a child’s development. Don’t curse them into thinking that life is just one darn thing after another.  Doing nothing is a critical piece to becoming something.

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