I think I’ve come up with a brand new twenty-first century concept: the Art of Doing Nothing.
Two weeks ago I was rehearsing in the chorus of the Dvorak Requiem at Berkshire Choral International in Sheffield, Mass. Nestled in the Berkshire Mountains, the organization is fondly referred to as “summer camp for choristers.” The week was packed with rehearsals, classes, recitals, meals, and other fun activities, and though I had promised myself some time off for pure relaxation, it wasn’t happening. Just like home, there was too much to do; every hour seemed consumed by some activity. My afternoons were “free” time, but I managed to fill them anyway by going to the gym or finishing a book I’d brought.
By Thursday I’d had enough. I decided to stretch out on a lounge chair by the pool at the B&B where I was staying. Ah, relaxing with a good book in hand, what could be better? Unfortunately, I’d brought the wrong book, one with disturbing images of death and dying, not very restful. Putting the paperback aside, I realized I had nothing to do. I began to stare at the sky. And smell the minty monarda in the garden. And listen to the whirr of the sprinkler. Only the blue sky and treetops were in my line of vision. I had come to a stop like an antique clock that has wound down to stillness. I was doing something I never, ever seem to find time to do. Nothing.
I sat in that state for perhaps a half hour, enjoying the empty sky, the rare inactivity. After a while, my self-imposed schedule demanded I rush off to my next event, but those moments by the pool were precious and forced me to see how little time I spend truly relaxing.
Certainly here at home there is little time for real rest. Between writing, doing laundry, gardening, walking the dog, feeding the cat, checking emails, shopping, fixing dinner, etc., etc., etc., there never seems to be a spare moment. Reading, which should be relaxation, really isn’t; while I’m reading, I’m working to understand and absorb the author’s words and thoughts. Watching TV should be relaxing, too, but there is so much noise associated with it, is it restful? Sleep would seem to be doing nothing, but it’s not. The body and brain are working to settle, to slow down, to prepare me for the next day; and the subconscious is surely hard at work. So sleep is not the same as consciously doing Nothing.
The practice of doing Nothing has eluded me partially because of fear. The work ethic I was raised with is so deeply ingrained, it has made me afraid of indolence, indolence that could perhaps become an ugly habit and ultimately render me a mindless, sedentary blob. Now, there’s a frightening thought! So I’ve developed the habit of pushing myself to keep going, maintain a schedule of activities, press on, move ahead, and keep busy. As a result, the days and weeks and months fly by at an alarming rate. Good grief.
So this past Sunday, with not a single activity on the calendar, I decided to experiment. I did garden chores and some reading, and after George had headed off to his golf game, I lay back in the hammock, my book and reading glasses on my chest, and for a few moments I felt nothing but the swinging of the hammock and saw nothing but the sky and clouds through the shimmering green treetops. I wasn’t reading or gardening or bird watching or eating or sleeping. I was doing absolutely Nothing.
And did this indulgence turn me into a slob? Was I damaged by those moments of inactivity? No, it was pure bliss. For a few minutes I was experiencing true relaxation, unadorned rest. Aaaaaaaah. Until I remembered with a start I had to walk Sasha before George came home from golf. I leapt off the hammock and went to find her leash.
So I haven’t gotten there quite yet, but at least I now recognize that doing Nothing is OK. It’s not a sin. It’s a refresher, a glimpse at purity and rest. Lovely, lovely relaxation. Maybe we should all practice it for a few moments daily or at least weekly. I recommend you experience Nothing—give it a try.