The Good Life – On Doing Nothing

There are few things that go more thoroughly against the grain of our society than doing nothing. Perhaps it is a holdover from the Puritan work ethic upon which our busy producer/consumer society is based upon. Whatever the roots of this phenomenon are, they are deeply embedded in our consciousness. From the time our children are infants, we program them to always be in a state of mental or physical activity. We rush our kids from school to birthday party to soccer match to ballet class to music lessons to math tutor and so on. Any sort of extended downtime is accompanied by a vague and persistent sense of guilt and uneasiness, as though we are not really fulfilling our duty as functioning human beings. Even when we go away on holidays, we feel we must check for new cell phone messages and e-mails while we’re sitting at a restaurant table waiting or while we’re reclining in a deck chair.

There is a common feeling amongst many of my friends and acquaintances that we exist with less and less leisure time. We are stuck on a treadmill of ceaseless daily activity. There are few opportunities to slow down and relax. In contrast, I would submit that we have many chances, each and every day, to indulge ourselves in the luxury of doing nothing. Because there is nothing more antithetical to doing nothing than a list of instructions as to how to go about it, I offer here some very loose thoughts and suggestions about how to give a little more free rein to your inner sloth.

“¢ Set aside some space within your home that is a sanctuary of idleness. Perhaps it will be your bedroom or a portion of your living room separated off from the rest of your home by a bookcase or a decorative screen. Whatever the location, be sure to make it a place that is special and pleasing to you. Perhaps paint it a soothing colour and decorate it with orchids or throw cushions. Light some candles or incense. Make sure that other members of your family are aware that this place is being used as a sanctuary, and enlist their support in making sure you are not disturbed.

“¢ Schedule time for yourself to take long, long baths or to sit in a hammock and listen to the sound of the birds singing.

“¢ Put yourself in a situation of doing absolutely nothing for an hour instead of sitting down with the daily newspaper, or turning on the television set to watch the news, CSI or Canadian Idol. Don’t even pick up a book or some knitting. Instead, sit in a comfortable chair in front of a window and watch the sky turning colours. Pay attention to the train of your thoughts, and see where they take you. Don’t be alarmed if your feel melancholy or even worried, and resist the urge to numb these sensations by finding something to occupy you. All of your thoughts and emotions are valid, and should be embraced. Sadness and boredom, just as much as exhilaration and joy, are part of the human experience.

“¢ Learn to appreciate, without impatience, all those small periods of enforced stillness that crop up dozens of times each day. Moments such as being stuck in traffic, waiting for clothing to dry at a laundromat, and waiting for a walk signal to cross the street are all opportunities to let restfulness sweep over you. When the flight you are waiting for at the airport has been delayed by an hour and a half, treat it as a sinful opportunity to simply sit and meditate, while the minutes tick slowly and blissfully by.

“¢ Approach getting outdoors the way you did when you were a child. Go for an evening walk around the neighbourhood, or go for a bicycle ride. Climb a tree in your back yard. Shoot some baskets at the school, or sit on a swing. It doesn’t matter what you do outdoors, just so long as it isn’t done with any sense of purpose. You are not there to power walk in order to lose five pounds, or to squeeze in a shopping trip to Safeway. You are there in order to play.