How About Trying Nothing?
By Stephanie Miller
Let's imagine all the stimuli and bits of information my brain receives as droplets of water. If it was the year 1016 I would have had my entire life to process a gallon of water. As a 55-year-old woman in the United States I've processed 20,0075 gallons of water so far and I will likely receive another 14,000 gallons before I die (not even considering the likely increased availability of data provided by future technologies) . That's a lot of work for my brain. I'm doing in a single day what I would have done in my entire lifetime if I lived in 1016. The trouble is that when your brain has that much work to do it doesn't have much time for vacation. Like every good first-world citizen my brain is kind of an workaholic. (I did a little research to see if I could find a citation to support this fact which I heard anecdotially, I didn’t find it. I did find THIS though, people have died while playing video games continuously, literally dropped DEAD from doing something incessantly.)
It got me thinking about how rarely I stop. I always have a lengthy list of things to do and I seldom feel okay about just sitting around. When I do stop doing things on my list I usually resort to entertainment like watching TV, fiddling around on social media or texting and calling friends. I’ve gotten better about scheduling time for self-care and rest (however ironic that may sound) but still I’m getting a lot more stimulus every single day then I would have if I'd live in the Middle Ages. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, I'm just saying it can be overwhelming.
There has been a lot of research and press about the virtue of doing nothing. There is also research to suggest that people are so uncomfortable doing nothing that they’ll self-administer a shock rather than sit in a room with nothing to do. I want to talk about that. Why it is so darn hard to do nothing?
First, and especially for Americans, there is a significant amount of personal shame associated with doing nothing. The first question everyone asks when you meet is What do you do? Underneath that question is the bias toward doing. Imagine if you answered Nothing. Conversation would screech to halt. We value contributing members of society and the subtle biases against artists, stay-at-home moms, and part-time workers suggest a belief that only productive members of society are valuable. Thinkers, dreamers or even people who are busy raising the next generation of human beings find themselves marginalized because they aren’t doing enough. Making an affirmative choice to do nothing in our society seems like an act of rebellion to many.
Second, and I think more troubling, is our inability to be with ourselves. Many of us find it almost impossible to sit quietly and just allow our thoughts to come up. The content of our thoughts can be frightening and often disturbing. The inside of my head can be downright scary. I hate to admit that I have had horrible thoughts including murdering more than one person, suddenly jumping off of bridge and wanting to steal an idling car at a valet stand. The fact of the matter is that our minds are wonderful, imaginative and powerful tools and – like the Force – they can go over to dark side. I think this dark side and the endless discursive chatter inside of our minds makes us uncomfortable. But what if there is nothing wrong with it?
Years ago I embarked on a journey to learn to meditate, initially, it was very difficult to sit still with my own thoughts, but gradually I came to know my own mind and to become friendly with it. One of my favorite teachers likens this process to entering a corral with a wild horse, over time the you begin to know the horse and the horse becomes familiar with you. That was my experience, the more time I spent with my mind the more I became able to just be present without fear or anxiety. The more I could accept that there is basically nothing wrong with me.
So go ahead and be a rebel! Try doing nothing. Set a timer for 5 minutes and try it. No texting, no TV, no talking, just sit. It’s amazing how restorative it can be allowing your mind to rest from all the work you ask it to do every day. As thoughts arise don’t take them too seriously, just notice them in the same way you might observe that it is a cool day or that there is a bird hopping in your yard. No judgement, just simple observation of what is.
If you find that beneficial you might want to cultivate a meditation practice. David Nichtern offers a this helpful series of online workshops to learn to meditate and Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey offer a 21 day meditation challenge. I very much appreciated this book which talks about the ordinariness of the spiritual experience.
Instead of thinking about the virtue of doing something try embracing the benefits of doing nothing. You might even find that you like being a rebel.