What I Learned from Doing Nothing

Remember when you had absolutely nothing to do?  

Oh wait.  You don’t?

I get it.

Ours is a culture that is obsessed with productivity.  The lure of productivity is powerful because we “reward” it in every possible way.  Some telling symptoms: you won’t ever be rewarded for your productivity by being asked to do LESS of it.  If you’re good at something, chances are you’re only going to get asked to do MORE of it.  Or this one (my favorite): the phenomenon of the “Productivity Hack.”  Ways to Do More.  Better.

Productivity is not inherently bad—spend any time outside and you’ll recognize it as one of the gifts unique to this time of year, where nature (in the northern hemisphere at least) is on a major production craze.  It’s beautiful and extravagantly abundant!

But in our addiction to productivity, I believe we’ve lost out on a really vital and frighteningly undervalued virtue: the virtue of idleness.

Shocked?  Offended?  The word “Idleness” may evoke an immediate reaction—especially if your upbringing links it at all to its sister-word “sloth” (one of the 7 deadly sins).  Goddess love her, I can still hear the voice of my older sister, fed up with my pestering her and her friends, saying, “Go do something productive!”  While I don’t blame her at all for it, as am sure I was totally annoying (what little sisters do best), her words pointed to what productivity culture at large teaches us: that idleness creates disorder and, if not only to be disdained, is to be avoided as one of the great evils of human nature.  

If you've come to class in the last two weeks, you've already heard me talk about my 4-days of Idleness spent on Lopez Island during our week of closure.  Here’s what I did a lot of: dawdling, lounging, waiting, listening, day-dreaming, being utterly aimless.  Ideas would come and I’d follow them down the meandering paths of my mind.  An impulse to walk or draw or read or practice yoga would surface and I’d say yes.  Or sometimes say no and take a nap instead.  I spent a lot of time yakking at leisurely length with the Goddess.  I ate slowly.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the Virtues of Idleness:

1.  It's the state of being that is the primordial soup of all creativity, also known as the Void, the Pregnant Mystery, the Silence before Sound, that tiny black dot that contains all the particles of the universe in the split moment before the explosion of Big Bang.  Most creation myths begin, not with Something—but with an Aware Nothing, out of which the stirrings of infinite possibility coagulate into shape and form.  

2.  It is our birthright of non-urgent innocence, occupied by dreamers, poets, the very young, the very old, and Calvin and Hobbes.

3.  It is integrative.  That is, it restores equilibrium to the psyche and stasis to our physiology.

4.  It is a highly recommended practice that is also usually a little uncomfortable (especially for those of us trained to over-schedule ourselves so that we are never left in the anxiety-ridden place of Being With Ourselves and Being With What Is). It will be especially uncomfortable if there are any unattended wounds present within or around us.  If this rings true for you, consider asking yourself: what am I trying to avoid by being busy?

5. As children know, idleness is the secret passage way to Fun, Play, Hilarity or Hoolaganry of all kinds.  This could be a whole blog post on its own.  But I’d rather you just go try it (just don’t try too hard--that defeats the purpose).

6.  If you are recovering from over-functioning productivity, it may take some serious discipline to carve out idle space.  Like I had to literally close my workplace down for a week and go to an island.  Also I had to let my phone die and choose not to drive somewhere to recharge it.  So there’s that.

7.  In idleness, problems get solved, even without you actively solving them.  Connections are made, without you actively connecting them.  That’s because in idleness, we can drop into the infinite wisdom of the intuition, in the spirit realm of interconnectivity, rather than spinning in the finite knowings of the mind.

8.  In a world that's addicted to business and productivity, it's a radical act to just lay around and do not a goddamn thing.

That easeful idle place was so important within the yoga tradition that it’s now built into every practice.  Savasana and meditation are two of the most precious of idle states—alert but inert.  It’s also applicable in every posture—that resting point of stillness that also opens into a vast inner awareness, where we aren’t worrying about the next thing, or ruminating on the last thing we did.  In claiming our place as agents and instruments of Divine Creative Process unfolding in creation, we also claim our “right” to rest and be held by the loving hands of the Divine.  Not doing.  Just being.

When was the last time you were actually BORED and didn't just rush to fill it by reading labels on things or scrolling Instagram?  As the summer ripens, consider what simple gifts of un-doing might be calling to you.  Block out a day or even an hour, or heck, five minutes—and don’t make any plans.  Move into the emptiness.  Lay on the ground.  Listen.  Pray.  Play.  Be.

Joyfully yours,