The Art Of Doing Nothing
The Art Of Doing Nothing

The Art Of Doing Nothing

Or The Benefit Of Being Lazy

Man, the weather in the early part of this past week was insanely nice. After all the snow and below-freezing temps, having warm days with reasonably clear skies felt wonderful. I was able to walk out in the yard without having to wear a jacket, play with the dogs, chat with neighbors I’ve not seen all winter, and enjoy what passes for reasonably clean air in the middle of a Midwestern industrial city. 

For a moment, one afternoon, the temperature was so warm, so pleasant that, just for a moment, I considered pulling my hammock off the shelf. I didn’t because when I turned around I was hit by a cold breeze reminding me that it’s only mid-March and any hints of Spring are actually a cruel tease to remind us that we don’t live in a warmer climate where fourteen layers of clothing are seldom necessary. By Thursday it was raining. By Friday morning the temperature was back down to 41 degrees. I had to tell my 10-year-old that, sorry, you have to wear a coat to the bus stop again. She wasn’t happy. I can’t say I was, either.

But ah, for that moment, I remembered what it is like to lie in that hammock, the dogs running back and forth underneath wondering why they can’t join me (there’s a 300-pound weight limit they would quickly exceed), the lingering fragrance of mosquito repellent in the air (cough, cough), my straw hat tipped down over my face, swinging gently in the breeze, pretending that I don’t hear the kids arguing over who’s cheating at whatever video game their playing. I miss those days, as brief and intermittent as they were. 

I also miss sitting in coffee shops and watching people come and go and when I think of sitting in coffee shops, I can’t help but remember where I started my people-watching habit, long ago in the days before 9/11 when one could sit at a gate in the airport without having to purchase a ticket and simply observe people’s habits and idiosyncrasies and personality quirks as they waited for their plane. Much of what I’ve learned about human behavior comes from those moments where, for all practical purposes, I wasn’t doing a damn thing but sitting there drinking coffee. Just sitting there, wondering why so many people were flying to Akron, or sympathizing with a parent who was sending a child off to college, or noticing that more than half the people on that flight to LA weren’t wearing shoes, just flip flops, and genuinely wondering how flight attendants managed to not bitch-slap the woman insisting, for the fifth time, that she really needed an upgrade to first class because she was afraid of sitting next to someone who “smelled foreign.” I used to kill an entire afternoon or evening sitting at the airport like that, watching people, inventing characters around them, and inevitably coming away with ideas and concepts that would fuel the next round of whatever creative project was fermenting in my brain. 

We’ve been told over and over, with endless articles and studies coming out almost every week, that we need to slow down, take it easy, be more mindful, and focus more on not being so focused. Not everything we do has to be about achieving the next goal, ticking off the next box on a list, or adding another bullet point to our resume. We need time to stop and do nothing, and even if we know that and think that we’re including downtime in our schedule, we’re probably not doing enough. Sit with me for a moment and let’s talk.

The Laziest Man In LA

In the very beginning of The Big Lebowski, the Dude is in the supermarket feeling up a quart of milk for which he will soon write a check, and the Stranger describes him as “a lazy man, and “the Dude was certainly that–quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide-….” 

To a lot of folks, tagging the Dude, and anyone like him, as lazy, might seem appropriate on the surface. Certainly, that’s the approach that other Lebowski guy, the big one, takes. He accuses the Dude of looking for a handout, derides him for being unemployed, tells him to get a job, and reminds him that, “the bums always lose.” 

Chances are pretty high that we all know someone like the Big Lebowski, someone who covers themselves in busy-ness to mask their incompetence. There is an overwhelming concept in the Western world that if you’re not working, constantly, harder than those around you, that you are somehow not worth as much to society. Some would even go so far as to say that if you’re not spending ten to twelve hours a day slaving away to put money in the bank that you are failing to make a sufficient contribution to your community. But if there’s anything we learn in this movie and through the character of the Dude, it’s that the people who work the most and the hardest sometimes have the shittiest lives. Sure, they have more money in the bank, live in bigger houses, have people running around doing other shitty things for them, but the quality of their lives, the amount of pleasure, and sanity is lacking. 

Look, you don’t need me to tell you that working in high-stress jobs where you have little control contributes to a shorter life span. We’ve known that for a long time but it’s really difficult for us to stop once we’ve started. 

We also know that getting sufficient sleep, relaxation, and exercise makes our lives better and can, in some cases, help us live longer. Again, that’s not a breaking news flash. Knowing that, though, doesn’t make it any easier for us to work an hour less or take our ass to the gym, does it? 

Yet, while strictly following the Dude’s example may not work for everyone, we all could stand to get a little bit closer. More than once this week Kat has reminded me that I need to give myself a break, not set unreasonable goals that I then feel pressured to meet. One night, I had to punt on making dinner and pick up pizza for the kids. I felt absolutely horrible for not sticking to my planned menu and spending those two hours in the kitchen, but my body was reaching a breaking point and at my age not listening to those warning signs can be deadly.

Almost everyone in the Western hemisphere has been raised with the notion that we live to work. Only in the past 30 years have people started living much past the official retirement age of 65 and even then, we’re finding that when they do, they don’t stop working. As our lives have grown longer, we find ourselves working more than ever! That really isn’t an improvement in life and quite honestly, if we’re not improving the quality of our lives, why are we working at all? There are some long-standing ideas that might have helped us once, but as humanity and society evolve we would do well to reconsider.

Do You Have A Job, Sir?

I have known a lot of interesting people over the many years I’ve been alive, but none more so than those who have taken up a more Eastern mindset of living, one that espouses concepts and philosophies originating in ancient Asian societies and involve not only yoga but the concept of mindfulness, focusing on one’s self and one’s body before doing anything external to ourselves. It’s a way of living that seems foreign to those of us with a Western mindset. Yes, they do things that are of value to other people, but those things are not their primary focus—they don’t live to work.

One such person, I’ve known for almost 16 years now. I met her when she was 19, rebellious, and very much a party girl. There wasn’t much of anything she wasn’t willing to try and there were a lot of things she did try, for better or worse. Her parents were more than a little concerned. Flash forward, and she’s now the mother of three adorable little girls, is a holistic health and wellness coach, and a certified reiki master. In the process, she has gone from being a super-hyper individual who needed to stay busy doing something almost twenty-four hours a day to one of the most chilled and relaxed people I’ve ever encountered. Now, I’m sure, with three girls, there are times she has a mom moment and has to enforce the house rules and provide strict guidance, but I’ve seen her with her kids and her way of teaching them is kind, supportive, and encouraging rather than the threatening or abusive method many of our parents used on us.

Another young woman has traveled across much of Southeast Asia, studying the different aspects of Eastern wellness and mindfulness, and has ended up for the past year in Bali where she practices Kundalini yoga and does brand and web development for wellness entrepreneurs. While most of us have experienced frustration with being quarantined and unable to travel, she has made the best of being in one of the most beautiful places on earth and focused on herself while building her business. Whether she’ll continue traveling or stay in Bali once quarantines are lifted is a question she’s not ready to answer yet. She sees no reason to stress about such things because she realizes that doing so does nothing to resolve the question. 

I know, not everyone can adopt that lifestyle. Someone has to farm, someone has to design and build the skyscrapers, someone has to sew the clothes we wear, someone has to ship the goods we produce to people who will buy them. There are all these jobs that have to be done, millions of jobs, or else the world falls completely apart.

Or does it?

I’m not sure whether the Dude understood the concepts of Tao, or if he’d even heard of the practice, but he definitely embodied the concept of going with the flow. One of the most famous quotes from Tao te Ching is, “Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force.” Later, Lao Tzu also says, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” We see the Dude doing both those things and doing them in a way that seems second nature. He is only troubled when Walter tries to convince him to do something that goes against that flow. 

The philosophy of Flow teaches that there are things natural for us to do, so we do them. There’s less emphasis on “what do you want to be when you grow up,” and more on “as you grow, where do you want to go?” and then letting the flow of life take you there. Things that need to be done still get done, but by people who enjoy doing them, not people forced into a job where they are slaves to a wage. 

Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu explains a bit more. He argues that what we call happiness is nothing more than we wei (non-action or effortless action), which means using one’s natural abilities and intuition to flow with one’s environment.

When we are fully engaged with what we are doing, we begin to act effortlessly. For Taoists, the practice of meditation and mindful observation of thinking helps shift our mindset from that of fear and avoidance to a way of being characterized by deep embodiment and openness. 

In Taoist philosophy, there is an emphasis on the paradoxical nature of truth. To gain a deeper understanding of reality it is necessary to meditate daily and train the art of we wei or non-action.

How do we do this meditating thing? There are many ways. The number of yoga methodologies, all of which involve some form of meditation, are as many as there are rocks on a shoreline. One of the more popular is Tai Chi and I’ve watched over the past year as another friend has embraced that philosophy and dramatically brought peaceful change to her life. The embodiment of rhythm, breathing, observation, and mindfulness without judgment, identification, or resistance to the flow has the ability to transform lives.

I look at all that and think, wow, that’s really cool, and it’s wonderful that these people have found something that makes their lives more serene, but I’m old. My bones creak and rattle when I try getting out of a chair. The thought of attempting those yoga poses makes my joints hurt. I’m not sure that flow is my flow. Is there any other way?

Well, now that you mention it, yes, there is.

That Some Kind Of Eastern Thing?

The Stranger and the Dude are sitting at the bar in the bowling alley when the Stranger says, “One of those days, huh. Well, a wiser fella than m’self once said, sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar, well, he eats you.”

The Dude responds with, “Uh-huh. That some kind of Eastern thing?”

The Stranger says, “Far from it.”

Eastern philosophy and mindsets are one thing, but when we look at happiness and contentment, something to which almost all of us aspire, we find that it isn’t necessarily people living in Asia who rank at the top of that list. 

There are a couple of things out there in the universe that are worth our attention. One is the World Happiness Report. This is important because not only does it list the happiest cities in the world, it helps us to understand why some cities consistently top that list while others are at the bottom. They also look into the differences between urban and rural happiness as well as the social environments that feed that happiness. 

Where are the happiest places on earth? Not Disneyland. Of the top ten cities, six are Scandanavian, with Helsinki (Finland) and Aarhus (Denmark) at the top of the list. Again. One each in New Zealand and Australia, one in Switzerland, and one in Israel. US cities don’t even start factoring into the list until the 18th and 19th spots. 

While it would be impossible and foolish to try to pin the reason for all that happiness on a single cause, one thing that stands out is the Dutch art of Niksen—literally doing nothing. There are two ways this can be put into practice. One is by sitting still and purposefully doing absolutely nothing, and the second is to do something without any purpose. This has rapidly become one of the most effective ways of destressing even in Japan where overworking is a way of life.

Worth noting here is that the midafternoon naps I take are technically not Niksen, though they can have a similar effect. Niksen gives your mind the freedom to wander for a period of time and while dreaming is perhaps a form of wandering, the sleeping aspect is a different effect, though, in moderation, equally helpful.

Just sitting in front of a window or on a bench in a garden, and doing nothing, even for two minutes, can be difficult when all our lives have been centered around focusing on the next thing we have to do. One researcher suggests using a timer, starting with two minutes and building up from there. There’s some evidence that this practice helps foster creativity and problem-solving. 

If it sounds as though there might be some relation between Niksen and meditation, there is. The difference is that meditation requires focus, intentionally tuning out the world, while Niksen has no focus, letting the world flow around you without responding to it in any way. 

Niksen can also involve an activity without purpose. Here, things such as going bowling by yourself or reading Jenna Moreci’s latest book might be good options. The challenge is removing the purpose of the activity and that’s not always easy. League bowling is out of the question because there’s always a Walter-type personality somewhere screaming about foot fouls. But I can go and bowl a set of games by myself, just because I want to bowl, and as long as I don’t let myself become obsessed with my score, I can have a good time and lower my stress level. Reading a book is a little more difficult for me because I inevitably find myself deconstructing the plot and analyzing characters and, in Ms. Moreci’s case, comparing what she does with what she espouses in her videos

So no, Niksen isn’t as easy as it sounds and can really upend one’s lifestyle if you’re one of those people accustomed to working 120 hours a week. When one first starts Niksen exercises, some studies show an increased heart rate and some difficulty sleeping. However, the same studies show the long-term benefits are associated with higher life satisfaction.

I Just Want To Play 

In 1983, singer Todd Rungren released the song, “Bang on the Drum,” with the opening line, “I don’t want to work, I just want to bang on the drum all day.” The song has been used all over the place, including by various sports teams whenever they make a score. The concept is that the person singing only has one thing they want to do: play the drums. In its own way, I suppose, playing the drums could be its own form of meditation, going with one’s personal flow. I get it. If it works for you, why not?

Personally, I think I’m more likely to go the route of Niksen, bowling a few games by myself for no reason, and when it’s warm enough just lying back in my hammock, listening to the sound of birds and delivery drivers being chased by the dogs. I can do both without going terribly far or bothering the neighbors too terribly much. If it’s warm and sunny, I can be in the hammock, maybe with a book. If it’s not, I can go bowling. Either way, I have options to help me destress by doing nothing.

I don’t endorse anyone doing the same thing I do. You find your flow and go with it. Paint. Write. Play with your pets. I would say practice making children but be careful—if you end up having one Niksen becomes more challenging for at least the next 18 years. Find your thing and go with it.

Let me leave you with these words.
In the heat of the fire, when our souls feel scorched,
May you be cooled;
When the work overwhelms and drowning seems inevitable,
May you find breath;
When the foul wind of insults calls you lazy,
May your rest be peaceful;
When tradition attempts to throw dirt in your face,
May you bathe in contentment;
And when the advice of others is disparaging and rude,
May you find wisdom in the guidance of your soul.

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