The Art of Doing Nothing

As Summer comes to a close in the Northern Hemisphere, we are gearing up for what is typically a busier time of year at work and school. We say a wistful goodbye to the slower pace of summer, and our thoughts are as far away from the idea of doing nothing as they could be. We have become so structured and over-stimulated in our lives that the idea of doing nothing seems impossible, selfish or even boring. We’ve become addicted to external stimulation. The very thought of being disconnected from email or cell phone access causes anxiety for many of us. The irony here is that it’s the addiction to external stimulation that keeps us disconnected in the truest sense; that is, we’re disconnected from ourselves.

When was the last time you went through the entire weekend without checking email? I’m not talking about the time you were camping and had no email access. I’m referring to the idea of shutting down your email on Friday afternoon (if you work Monday to Friday) and not opening it again until Monday morning, just because you have other things you want to do. And when was the last time those weekend plans were to do nothing? I have often missed time sensitive messages for social activities on the weekend, because I don’t always check my email (even my personal email) when I’m not working in front of the computer. The sender is always surprised and assumes I must have been somewhere in the woods where there was no email access, when in reality I was at home in the city, doing a lot of nothing.

Why is this so unusual? We have become so externally-focused that we’ve forgotten how to spend time with ourselves, in quiet reflection or just day-dreaming about whatever comes into our minds. We’ve lost the sense of what it feels like to just ‘be’. We’ve become attached to our list of externally-defined accomplishments to the point that we feel guilty if a Saturday afternoon goes by and we didn’t complete a task on our to-do list. The afternoon may have been wonderfully productive in the sense of new insight or a creative idea that came forth from doing nothing, but we tend not to value those internal accomplishments.

When we’re constantly engaged in activity outside of ourselves, we’re not making time to nurture our relationship with ourselves. It’s not possible to contemplate why we experienced road rage on the way home from work if we check email, help the kids with their homework and prepare dinner all at the same time. We move through our lives from one demanding activity to the next, without ever creating the space to reflect on and honour how we feel about those very activities.

How many people do you know who can spend an entire weekend alone without TV, a computer or smart phone? Why is it so hard to do nothing? Most people will say it’s because they don’t have time, but of course there is plenty of time to do all the things that are keeping them busy! The truth is it is often a subconscious fear of dealing with the thoughts and emotions that stay suppressed while we busy ourselves with constant activity. It’s a result of an unhealthy internal relationship with ourselves. The fear is that the tough questions will come up, such as: Am I happy?, Is my romantic relationship where I want it to be? Am I passionate about my work? Why am I so angry/sad/guilty/anxious/tired? Do I love myself? Do I even like myself?

On some level we know that these feelings and thoughts will surface in times of quiet and many of us would rather not deal with them, thank you very much! So we stay on the ‘busy train’, creating projects and activities that prevent us from doing nothing, so that these questions and feelings won’t creep into our conscious mind. Unfortunately, there is a huge price to pay for ignoring this internal relationship. How can we ever be healthy in body, mind, soul and spirit if we don’t know ourselves? The answer is, we can’t.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that we’ll do this when we’re on vacation and we’re away from work and the demands of everyday life. We save up all of our ‘time to do nothing’ for a week or two away from home. For most people this doesn’t happen. First, the vacation time is not actually spent doing nothing. Most often, the days are filled with scheduled activities, tours and other commitments that are a nice change from our everyday lives, but are far from doing nothing. So, people come back from a vacation with pictures of all the things they did and all the places they visited, but they still did not allow much time, if any, to do nothing. Secondly, we may only have a few weeks vacation each year, so waiting for vacation is not really a viable solution.

Usually, the first question people ask when you return from vacation is “What did you do?” I remember answering this question some years ago after a week away with my family. My answer was “Well, the kids swam in the pool, but other than that, we didn’t do anything”. My friend said, “but what did you do when the kids weren’t swimming?” I answered “Nothing”. It took several exchanges back and forth like this until she finally gave up, exasperated that I had ‘nothing’ to report, despite the fact that I described our vacation as a glorious week! Of course we ate, slept, read, walked and did other quiet things, but it all happened in such a natural rhythm that it felt like nothing. And there were large blocks of time that I couldn’t account for if asked, because in those moments I was literally doing nothing, or doing something that happened without any forethought or afterthought. I was just being.

So how do we do this in our daily lives? Start with scheduling time to do nothing. That’s right, physically schedule it in your calendar, otherwise you will fill the time with yet another external activity. You can do something quiet during this time, such as walking or knitting, but watching TV or reading won’t provide the space for quiet that is required. If you choose to go for a walk, don’t bring your technology with you , because you’ll be distracted by the music.

When doing nothing, you want to allow your thoughts and feelings to flow, so that you start to develop this important relationship with yourself. The goal is to develop an internal relationship in which the tough questions are permitted to flow through your conscious mind without judgement or resistance. This bears repeating: the key is to allow the thoughts and feelings with no judgement or resistance. With practice, we can become objective about our feelings and thoughts in order to use them as the powerful signals that they are.

Pay attention during this quiet time. What thoughts come up? Who are you thinking about? More importantly, what feelings arise? You may be thinking, “but I already think too much, the last thing I need is to start analyzing my thoughts!” Instead of focusing on the thought, connect with the feeling that comes along with it. The truth is in the feelings and they will guide you to becoming conscious of what you need to examine more closely.

Do you notice any tension forming in your body when the thought or feeling arises? Where? Do any existing symptoms or conditions worsen when the feeling arises? Perhaps those tension headaches are related to some unprocessed emotions that need to be addressed. The links between a physical symptom and a specific emotion or event may not be obvious to you but they are there nevertheless. There may be a long standing pattern of suppressed emotions that you don’t realize are linked to a symptom or condition that you’re experiencing at the moment. Often, the pattern began so long ago that it’s difficult to connect the emotions with anything currently happening in your life. For example, constipation is often linked to fear – the fear of ‘letting go’ in some way. Someone who is constipated may not be feeling consciously fearful but the fear could be manifesting in less obvious ways, such as a need for control. If you think of the meaning of the popular phrase ‘anal retentive’ you can see how someone you know who maybe be described that way could suffer from constipation.

Even if you don’t feel any obvious physical discomfort while you’re doing nothing, it’s important to understand that ineffectively processed emotions will build up over time and eventually cause physical and/or emotional symptoms, so learning to effectively process emotions is essential to achieving good health.

There may also be patterns or emotions that arise that you have difficulty understanding. For example, sadness or a feeling of having been hurt often lies beneath what initially feels like anger or irritability. If you never make the space to feel and process this anger, you’ll never come to understand the hurt that is actually behind it. If hurt is actually the core feeling, then it’s important to identify it as such, so that you can process it fully and let it go. It can take some time and coaching to learn how to do this but it is time well invested, as there is no more important relationship than the one you have with yourself.

Nurturing this relationship with yourself will help direct you onto the path of knowing who you are, who you want to be and what you want to do in your life. So you see, learning how to do nothing leads to doing something after all.

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When was the last time you went through the entire weekend without checking email? I’m not talking about the time you were camping and had no email access. I’m referring to the idea of shutting down your email on Friday afternoon (if you work Monday to Friday) and not opening it again until Monday morning, just because you have other things you want to do.

Wendy Knight Agard

Copyright 2006-2019 Wendy Knight Agard.