We’re very good at being busy and running around, but do we ever manage to stop and truly do nothing?
I recently came across a cool idea: the Art of Nothing by Dr. Alessandra Wall. It’s the simple suggestion to take some time every day to do nothing. Yes, yes, I thought, I know that’s important. But I don’t have time to do nothing.
Most days, we’re running around from thing to thing, rushing and not stopping until the end of the day when, finally, we plop down on the sofa, exhausted. When we do take a break in the evening, we watch TV, check the messages on our phone, scroll through social media, or read a book. We rarely take the time to really and truly do nothing.
Dr. Alessandra Wall argues that having time to do nothing allows our thoughts to wander and make connections, so eventually we can make sense of what is happening in our lives and realize where we’d like to go from here. She makes the point that without such time to gain clarity, we are mostly floating along and may end up in a situation (e.g., job, relationship, etc.) that we wouldn’t have necessarily chosen for ourselves. The feeling of, “This is not the life I wanted,” “How did it come to this?!” or “This is not who I am!” may be resolved if we sometimes let our minds wander, so we can reflect and make sense of the events in our lives.
How to practice the Art of Nothing?
Since I’ve been meditating for years, this idea immediately reminded me of meditation. The similarity is that both meditation and the Art of Nothing provide a way to observe your thoughts and reflect on them. Also, both approaches emphasize sitting down and taking a moment to be present and notice what’s going on.
The difference is that meditation is much more structured and feels goal-oriented (even though ideally it shouldn’t be). When meditating, there is a certain technique we’re using or instructions we’re following. It’s difficult to feel like we’re having a good meditation session because thoughts inevitably come up and distract us from the focus of attention or, in other techniques, the open awareness we’re maintaining. Even if our meditation teacher has told us multiple times that it’s okay and perfectly normal for the mind to wander, we still often feel that we’re supposed to avoid thoughts.
It struck me how different the Art of Nothing felt in that respect. Basically, you plop down on the sofa and let go. Many thoughts will come to mind, and that’s the whole point. You’re not telling your mind to be still or to focus on the present moment; some days it may do so, and other days it may not. That’s okay. You’re just providing space for your mind to do its thing.
Some meditators will point out that this is a type of meditation, and indeed it is. I view it as a more unstructured rest for the mind, or an opportunity to set the mind free for a little while.
Interestingly, for someone like me who is generally quite structured, some unstructured mind space really comes in handy. I practice Doing Nothing (as I call it) 2-3 times a day for 5-10 minutes, and I feel refreshed every time after I’ve done it and better able to engage in the next activity.
It’s difficult not to be goal-oriented
As much as I enjoy this being an unstructured activity, I also struggle with it. If there’s no goal to it, then why am I doing it? How do I know it’s having an effect if I’m not intentional with how I’m doing it? Am I just wasting my time?
With meditation, I used to enjoy having a meditation course or pack to complete or some technique to focus on. However, over the last couple of months, I was feeling like meditation was a burden, one more obligation I had to fulfill. It was difficult to get myself to meditate because I simply didn’t want to. I started getting strangely rebellious against the meditation instructions (“You can’t tell me to take a deep breath! I’ll take a breath if I want to! I’ll do what I want!”), which probably wasn’t a good sign.
For this reason, I’m now enjoying a less structured approach. I literally enjoy plopping down on the sofa, looking outside, and doing nothing. It’s a bit tricky because I can’t quite quiet thoughts like, “Why am I doing this? This is a waste of time,” but I lie there anyway. I put my phone and any books away and let my mind do its thing. Lying there often allows me to notice my body releasing tension, which is such a pleasant feeling. Slowly, my mind also releases a bit, and when I get up, I feel refreshed. It also makes a difference that I feel like I’m doing this because I want to and not because I have to.
I have to say I genuinely enjoy doing nothing! When Jacob tries to tell me something but I’m practicing the Art of Nothing (i.e., chilling on the couch), I simply respond with, “Mmm.” He asks, “Oh, are you doing nothing?” and I say, “Yeah,” with a wide smile on my face. Once, I caught him chuckling. It must be funny seeing me, the one who’s always running around with a to-do list in mind, lounging about and doing nothing.
Photo from Matheus Bertelli (Creative Commons license)