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The expansive joy of doing nothing

The expansive joy of doing nothing

We are filled with busy-ness, wearing our full calendars like badges and armor. I know I often find a certain pride in turning to a new week in my diary and seeing it crammed full of scheduled meetings, lectures, lunches and dinners. I feel like I’m doing something! going somewhere! accomplishing! 

Recently though, I’ve found myself burning out, fizzling, slowing like wind-up toy winding down. All the busyness was keeping me, well, busy, but when I looked back on the past few weeks, I realized I hadn’t actually done anything. I haven’t felt creative in months, I’ve hardly done any writing and I’ve even struggled with reading more than a chapter of a book a time – a problem if you’re doing a PhD, as I am now. 

So, paralyzed by the overwhelming amount of work I needed to catch up on, I found myself one weekend unable to do anything at all. It’s like all the distractions, all the busyness finally added up and tipped the scale. I came to an abrupt halt. My body, dense and heavy and unmoving like a boulder, did not want to get out of bed. And finally, finally – I let myself stay there. 

There is something to be said about the value of rest – the negative to ‘doing’ which is just as valuable as the doing itself. Just as gym trainers advice us of the importance of having regular rest between vigorous work-out sessions, we need to accord ourselves that same mental stillness between all the things we do each day and each week. 

It is about breathing out, as much as it is breathing in. 

It is about allowing ourselves – body, mind and spirit – to take in as much as we expend in all our frantic doing. 

I know the idea of letting all of it go can be frightening. A part of us balks at the thought of absconding responsibilities, cancelling on people, not showing up. But this isn’t about giving up what we have to do. It’s about balancing all the things we have to do with moments of ‘doing nothing’ – and most importantly, allowing ourselves to sink into it, guilt free, knowing that this is just as important as the other things on our task list. (I have known people who, unable to relinquish their planners completely, schedule in time to do nothing). 

We can bring this whole, expansive nothingness into our lives in three ways: 

Do nothing during a task.

Allow yourself mini breaks between whatever it is you have to do, even if it’s just five minutes every hour. Do absolutely nothing but take 10 deep mindful breaths. If you can’t sit still, pick up your knitting for a few rows. Drink a cup of tea. Listen to your favorite song. 

Do nothing every day.

Find some time every day to just do nothing. This can be as short as 10 minutes when you first wake up in the morning, after work, or right before you go to bed. Give yourself time for you, whether it’s to ease into a new day or, at the end of the day, to let all the busyness you’ve had settle and dissipate. 

Do nothing for long(er) periods of time.

This could be taking a weekend to lie in bed, eat greasy takeout and read trashy novels, or going on a holiday. Proper periods of rest after being on the go for extended periods are so helpful for pressing that reset button, getting clarity and finding new inspiration. Let an auto-responder deal with your emails and don’t try to get updates from friends and colleagues.  

Whether it’s micro breaks or a big lush holiday, you’ll find that something magical happens in that empty space. When we’re not trying to fit ourselves into tightly constructed to-do lists and precisely divided hourly segments throughout the day, all the parts of us exhale and expand.

Instead of mentally and physically donning different hats to fulfill the multiple roles we set up for ourselves – student, employee, daughter, sister, friend, partner – we let ourselves just be. 

More importantly, as we relax into a place of doing nothing, the rigid boundaries we set up for accomplishing goals, finishing tasks and meeting people lift away.

All the different parts of ourselves reach across and connect to each other. Thoughts and events from one part of our life find their way over to other parts of our minds and inspire new thoughts, new ideas. 

As you sit and do nothing, a remnant from a conversation with a friend reminds you of a new approach to a work problem; a piece of music you’re listening to inspires you to start practicing the piano again and revive a much-loved hobby; a meditation helps you process the emotions from a nagging, difficult encounter and let it go. 

Actually, you realize, in that space of doing nothing are opportunities for an infinite number of juicy, awakened, energized, inspired somethings. 

But this won’t happen as long as we keep trying to force ourselves into perfectly planned schedules and run rings around ourselves to complete as many things as possible in a day. We need to gift ourselves space to expand and dream and float because that’s exactly where all the goodness happen.

Give yourself the treat of doing nothing this week. You might be surprised to discover that you end up accomplishing far more than you thought you would. 

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