When Did You Last Do… Nothing?
Only recently am I emerging from the spell of to-do lists.
I used to believe that “fulfilment” is the fruit of busywork and achieving our goals. After all, success and happiness depend on consistent action — right? Well, not quite. This is a half-truth which misses the bigger picture.
Half a year ago, I left my job to go travelling in Asia. I then gave myself a pat on the back for doing something I knew would be good for my mind, heart, body, and soul.
But not long into the trip, I started to unravel.
Without anything to structure my time, I started to lose my marbles. All sorts of internal gremlins and demons started rudely interrupting my day:
“What on earth am I doing here? I haven’t worked hard enough to take this break. I don’t deserve it.”
“I should be climbing the career ladder.”
“Going travelling is a luxury… I’m not being useful enough to society.”
Why all the backchat? Why the resistance?
Decisions made from a place of self-love and self-care often feel great at the time, but the follow-through can be uncomfortable. It takes courage to do something different and be someone else for a change.
I’ve encountered similar internal resistance when planning short retreats with my local Buddhist community. Half of me always wants to cancel at the last minute, and instead fill my weekend with yet more busywork — meet a friend for dinner, work on my blog, tidy the house, pop out to the shops, and on it goes.
Even while on the retreat, I continue to face the same voices. The prospect of plonking myself on the floor and doing nothing at all is somehow terrifying. I’m tempted to fill my time with reading a book, because then at least I’m learning something, right? Or perhaps journaling so I can reach higher heights of self-awareness.
Thich Nhat Hanh describes sitting meditation as “enjoying doing nothing”. It’s my favourite definition.
In daily life, I spend so much time addicted to ‘thinking’ that I became angsty when there is no longer any need for me to plot and plan.
But once my withdrawal symptoms fade, a sense of liberation emerges.
For one, being around people in silence with no expectation to make small talk, or perform, is immensely peaceful. Rather than creating a sense of isolation, the consensus was that it brought us into closer connection with one another.
Later in the retreat, I remember sitting with a cup of tea and noticing a family of ducks quietly crossing the lawn. Having meditated for several hours by that point, I really saw those ducks on their little journey. It was a joy.
I had tapped into a natural, nourishing place some might call ‘being mode’.
As you can imagine, heading home was tough.
The Importance of ‘Being’
Modern societies fail to recognise the value of carving out time to do nothing, let alone recharging in solitude.
Most of us get a pitiful amount of ‘annual leave’, time which we feel pressured to fill with yet more frenzied activity.
Tell your colleague that you spent last weekend alone in a remote cabin twiddling your thumbs, and they might well give you an alarmed look.
Such is the emphasis on states of ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’. Yet we need a healthy balance of both to continue on as functioning, resilient human beings.
For every systole, there must follow a phase of diastole.
The heart must pump blood around the body, but it must also relax totally in order to fill with nutritious, oxygen-rich blood for the next cycle.
When a heart is forced to overwork, it becomes hypertrophic — thick and stiffened. In this condition, you can imagine how much harder it becomes for the strained heart to relax and fill with blood. Without blood, there is no life.
Making Time To Be
I was adamant about integrating this lesson back into my life — the ‘real’ world. After all, what good is a retreat if I leave my serenity behind? Many people don’t even have the luxury of retreat at all.
So far, I’ve implied a link between ‘doing’ and ‘output’, but there’s a paradox in there.
By ‘doing mode’ I’m referring to a specific mindset — an emotional attachment to tasks, schedules and plans. It’s possible to be still as a log, lying in bed with all this floating in your head. In which case, you’re under the spell of doing mode.
Similarly, we can be fully connected with the stillness at the core of our being while going about our day mindfully. Again, this ‘being mode’ is more a state of consciousness than a condition dependent on your output.
That said, finding such a place inside us can take time, making it a good idea to create regular periods where no output is expected of you whatsoever.
Meditation is one route to that place, but there are other ways too.
When did you last go for a walk without any agenda? A walk where you didn’t feel the need to call a friend, stop by for groceries or track your calories burnt?
When did you last sit down for a meal and take in all the flavours? A meal without chatter, television or perhaps even your internal critique of the cooking?
When did you last sit down and take it all in? The clouds, the trees, children laughing, dogs barking.
This isn’t primarily about becoming a ‘better’ person, nor is it about becoming more ‘productive’ or more ‘zen’.
These might be worthwhile intentions, but on a deeper level, it’s about remembering that you’re alive.
You are life itself.
Not a machine — a living, breathing, perceiving being.
No amount of busy activity can take that away.
Thanks for reading.