How to Do Nothing

A couple of weeks ago I ventured from my home in coastal southern Maine to the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts to visit my parents who still occupy my childhood home – an early 20th century bungalow at the edge of the woods full of books, flowers and vegetables from the property’s abundant gardens, a wood stove with the faintness of winter’s creosote, and perennial Belize double hammock on the sky blue front porch. Open windows in summertime billow curtains, an abundant cross-breeze and the lightness of bare feet trailing fresh cut grass and dew. Where apple and pear trees, an ash tree, rhododendron and bramble once flourished, hellebore, lungwort, lily of the valley, coral bells and bleeding hearts craft a new landscape border amidst ancient blueberry bushes gone to the birds – and so to the air, field, woods, brook, and river. One could sit in a hammock here for a while and do nothing but observe the amble of a stink bug-and feel quite fulfilled upon returning to work, which is indeed what I did on my most recent visit.

As a child I learned from my parents’ example that the business of creating lush gardens, or finishing a book, or keeping a wood fire going relied on a balance of working well at doing the thing – a la Henry Ford’s “Chop your own wood and it’ll warm you twice” – combined with abundant breaks for relaxation and “doing nothing.” As it turns out, the practice of doing nothing, of not being busy – on purpose – may actually help us to be more productive and creative. Perhaps we’ve all experienced this, having escaped our work to do something like stare out to sea from a picnic blanket, warmed by the putter of lobster boats gliding into the harbor, and then, after half an hour or so, returning to a project, only to feel more focused and prolific.

Thought about in another way, doing nothing could actually represent a kind of cool resistance to the culture of being busy, or what Omid Safi calls the “disease of being busy.” When we are busy, he purports, we are not at ease. Do you ever find yourself saying that you’re “so busy” all the time? If so, have you ever questioned another response? Or thought about what saying you’re “so busy” may communicate to others about your ability to stay present, focused and engaged – in your relationship to or with them, or in a new project? Or simply about your own inclination toward being easeful?

Have you thought about why we live in a culture where there’s so much pressure to be productive all the time and yet wondered why so many of us are also so unproductive, or why the tasks we engage, like scrolling through our phones or flipping through channels, may often be so void of meaning? If so, or if not, take a moment to reflect.

And then do nothing, preferably in a favorite place – without looking at your phone, or reading a book, or doodling, or eating, or anything else “productive” – to see how you feel. Maybe at first doing nothing feels weird or difficult or even frustrating. But pay attention to how the practice helps you to focus, and then, after a while, to the new creative ideas that may emerge.

I recommend doing nothing outside, in natural places, and really listening, noticing and paying attention to the multitude of sounds, smells, sights, feels, and tastes – and perhaps especially their changes over time – if for no other reason as a reminder that you exist and that your main business does not need to be busyness. But also because doing nothing with attention may inspire similar focus elsewhere – to some more meaningful work, whatever that means for you.

For nearly forty years I’ve stopped to observe the ash tree that once stood at my childhood home. By now I’ve written poems about it, learned songs about ash trees, and more recently watched my father stack logs from it after its demise by the Emerald Ash Borer – all after many hours of just sitting with this one majestic ash tree.

Have you ever watched herring gulls clam along mudflats in a January snowstorm? Tracked the snowy footprints of voles along the rocky Maine shoreline? Watched yarrow turn from golden yellow to dark brown and back again? Cultivating presence outdoors, away from screens and technological distractions, breeds the kind of focus that inspires sharp eyes and a sharp listening ear in other arenas of our lives, and surely in our work. Have you experienced this kind of close awareness of one thing, and its effects on your focus elsewhere, too? Try it and let me know what you discover.

My break in western Massachusetts, which I take at least quarterly, inspires a similar practice at my seaside home in southern Maine. There, I can sit on a stool at the kitchen countertop and keep sentry over beechwood and cypress trees to the river, where lobster boats with names like Bossy Lady and Judy Marie putter out to sea, or return to the harbor encircled with seagulls to unload their treasure and sleep. Day boats knock on their moorings through the night, when with candlelight at the counter, and distant laughter carried across the harbor, I can peer out into the starry night and do nothing else.

Writing prompt: How and where do you “do nothing”? Why? How does the business of doing nothing inspire you to engage more meaningful and focused work? What is “meaningful and focused work” to you?

*By the way, let me know if you follow any of the links I included in this post and then let’s have a thoughtful conversation about any one of them together.

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