Want to make a wild, radical, counter-culture New Year’s Resolution? Join me in vowing to take a little time every day to do nothing. Life is so full of something these days, we forget that it’s the gaps, the spaces, the silences, the moments of doing nothing that make it all come into focus. Just like jazz, which needs lots of space between the notes to give the song texture, rhythm, and surprise, we need gaps in our day. Otherwise our brains get as cluttered as an episode of Hoarders, packed full of to-do lists, re-runs of worry, incessant demands, and piles of anxieties. The need for mental space was brought home to me loud and clear at our Christmas Eve church service when a strange and wonderful thing happened. The church was so crowded that all us last-minute arrivals (with three kids, do you arrive any other way?) were shoved into the basement to watch the service on a projector. And then the priest’s microphone failed. Suddenly there was a room full of people with nothing to do. It was a Christmas miracle.
Now I love our wonderful, ninety-year-old pastor Fr. Clay. He writes these great books, his latest is called Awesome Love, and he ends every homily with a meditation. But on this Christmas Eve we all sat and watched his lips move, a crowd of happy-holiday well-wishers in our red sweaters all staring at a giant screen filled with poinsettias and candles and an old man in a white robe, and dead silence.
Right away, it made people nervous. A contingent of type-A personalities ran off to fix the problem, which eventually proved un-fixable. Others looked around cautiously, wondering if we’d have to sit like this the whole time. An hour of nothing! A crowd of silence. Teenagers were looking at their parents in disgust, mouthing phrases like, “are we really, like, going to sit here the whole time?” and “is it okay if I text?”
Many did finally leave. The quiet nothing was too much. I don’t blame them. I thought about it. It was Christmas Eve, a busy time, and we were packed into a cafeteria that smelled like cigarettes and feet, and nothing, absolutely nothing, was happening. And since it was church, it wasn’t like we could start playing board games.
And then the magic happened. Those of us who decided to stay, settled in and did nothing. For one small break in the chaos of Christmas, my family and the bottom half of our church, sat in silence. My wife and I closed our eyes and leaned back on our folding chairs. My sons dropped their heads on our laps. My daughter mindlessly flipped through a coloring book. It was a blissful moment of total and absolute nothing.
So far this Christmas, I’ve really enjoyed the water park with the kids, the gift opening, the glass of Scotch by the tree with my wife, lots of great moments…and yet I keep remembering that sliver of silent nothing we shared on Christmas Eve.
People used to go to church to find community after a week’s worth of isolation on the farm. Now all we have is community, connection, interaction. Maybe church should be an entire hour of sitting in silence? (That’s actually what Quakers and Buddhists do.)
That slice of time in church reminded me of what I have been hearing a lot lately. Doing nothing is important! Boredom can result in creativity, better health, and inner-growth. In a world where we are always pushed to do more, access more, multi-task more, network more, meet more goals, plug-in more, and interact more, a little bit of doing nothing is practically revolutionary.
The problem is, I feel bad when I do nothing. I suspect I’m not alone. If I have a minute free, and I sit down in that really nice leather chair we bought for, presumably, relaxing in, I feel like I have to do something. I have to read the paper (I should know what’s going on), check my email (and actually reply), catch up on Facebook, or fix the toilet (which is why I spend time on Facebook). There’s no way I can just sit there and do absolutely nothing. It’s un-American. It’s un-human.
But I should. You should, too. So that’s my New Year’s resolution. Every day, for a little bit, maybe only five minutes, I am going to do nothing.
The benefits of doing-nothing are endless:
- It boosts creativity. In fact, it forces it. I know my kids do the most interesting things and have the most wonderful thoughts when they have “nothing” to do. More and more, child experts are saying our kids don’t get enough down time, unplugged time, time to literally be bored. Force your kids off to their rooms to do nothing for a little bit every day. It’s good for them (and you).
- Doing nothing gives the brain an “awake” rest. If ends up in a nap, even better. Nobody, these days, sleeps too much.
- Doing nothing promotes mindfulness, which means being aware, living in the moment, which leads to enlightenment. So lots of nothing = enlightenment. Sign me up.
- Enjoying doing nothing reduces stress and calms the body, heart, nervous system, which makes you healthier and live longer. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (who is not a lazy person, judging by the countless books he’s written and the multiple Zen centers he runs and the crazy number of movements he’s started) says we should be doing “nothing” for a half-an-hour a day–a wide-awake, total relaxation session. And, for him, that’s separate from meditation! Now there’s a guy who knows how to do nothing and still get a lot done!
- Doing nothing helps us enjoy the simple moments. If you can enjoy doing nothing, you can enjoy doing anything.
- Doing nothing clears the head and gives us a chance to see the world around us.
- Doing nothing helps us solves problems. Many experts have said that the gaps of quiet help our brains’ relax and silently work out solutions in the back of our head.
- Finally, most major world problems are caused by people trying to do something. Global warming, the financial crisis, and all wars were caused by people doing something. Perhaps if people took a little break in the day to do nothing, we’d generate less pain in the world.
How to do nothing? That’s a tough call. What constitutes doing nothing versus something? For adults, perhaps taking some time to draw or write poetry would be, in our productivity-driven world, considered nothing. For kids, I believe doing nothing is anything that doesn’t involve a screen in front of them or something they’ve been ordered to do.
One problem I’ve found with doing nothing is dealing with other peoples’ disdain. If you live with a busy family or work in a hectic office and you decide to sit down and do nothing, what happens? Everybody comes at you and expects you to do something! So you need to make it clear to everyone why you are doing nothing and why they should join you. Have a little time in the day marked for everyone to go off alone and do nothing.
Here are some ways to do nothing:
- Front porch sitting, usually in a rocking chair (a favorite past-time of our ancestors).
- Slow walking nowhere. Slow walk a river with your kids. Skip rocks. Don’t have a destination.
- Doodling and random sketching.
- Tree staring.
- Thumb twiddling or yo-yo-ing.
- Bathing. (Long hot baths are an acceptable modern-form of doing nothing, probably because you are cleaning ourselves in the process.)
- Using a sauna, if you have one. One of the busiest, do-something guys I know swears by saunas, and I suspect it’s his sneaky way of doing nothing without admitting it.
- Flower smelling, star-gazing, wave watching.
- Putting feet up and looking off into space or at some art.
- Petting or walking the dog. (I suspect this is why they say pet owners live longer).
- Cuddling with kids or with a partner.
Sometimes the best part about doing nothing is that you end up doing something. Under-tree-sitting can lead to inventing gravity, and cuddling with a partner can sometimes lead to…
And of course, you can’t really make a New Year’s resolution to do nothing, because that would be doing something. Just do nothing, whatever your version is, and do it proudly.
But in case you need reminders, here’s a little sign I made for myself to hang around the house: Do Nothing Reminder. For a few more ideas, check out my guest post at Tiny Buddha about how to find mystical moments in your every day life.
And finally, a disclaimer. You can take doing nothing too far. If you’re one of my students reading this, and you think I’m saying it is okay to sit in in your mom’s basement smoking weed all day, you’re wrong. You need to get off your butt and do something!
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