Saturday, June 11, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part II: Doing Nothing

Today, I have been thinking about the fine art of doing nothing...

I used to come to this place in large part because it afforded me a chance to "do nothing." In fact, I have come to this peaceful house by myself several times... and have stayed here for two weeks (or longer) without choosing see (or call) a single soul-- beyond a weekly trip to the grocery, and perhaps a few trips to the bakery.

In this modern and hectic world, it seems that most people have forgotten how to "do nothing." Or, our perceptions of what constitutes "nothing" have changed to the point where "nothing" looks a lot more like "something," at least to me. Maybe we're simply misidentifying things we WANT to do as "nothing," and things we DON'T want to do as "something."

I am not sure how this all came to happen, although I will lay some of the blame of the door of our tendency to fear that we are-- somehow-- living an inferior life unless every single moment of our existences is filled with "some activity." If we choose to simply sit still and stare into space, we label it as "wasting time" or "laziness," and start worrying that we are "missing" something.

But is time really something we can "waste?"

And what are we so fearful of?

I mean, consider this: Even when we DO take time to sit still, we almost obsessively label it as "meditation," or "relaxation." That way, we can take nothing-- and our (Secret? Hidden?) desires to do nothing-- and somehow name them as "something," thereby putting an acceptably busy face on them.

It was in this place I first learned to do nothing.

My Aunt Ulla and I would eat lunch-- sometimes dinner-- and afterwards she would come out on the brick patio in front of the house... and sit.

I would come along.
I was maybe six or seven.

She called it "sitting and seeing."

We would simply sit in our chairs, not talking, and look at the world (nature) around us. Leaves moving in the wind, butterflies on the lavender blossoms, birds in the trees, clouds passing by; perhaps listen to the distant sounds of cows, birds and an airplane. Just quiet time; just being alive. In some ways, this was like meditation... but at the same time, there was no "objective" and no "time limit." Sometimes we'd sit for less than ten minutes, sometimes for over an hour.

And yes (for you skeptics out there), as a seven-year old I was capable of sitting still and doing nothing for an hour. In fact, I enjoyed it immensely, coming from a home where I was expected to "make myself useful" during every waking moment.

"Sitting and seeing" has remained a part of my life ever since Ulla first spoke the words and showed me what they meant. She was the first person I knew... and possibly the only person I have known... who truly embraced and lived the idea that "doing nothing" was not some form of laziness and, moreover, was good for people. I haste to add that she was a very active person... but she lived a very balanced life that included daily naps and time to simply watch the grass grow, as well as a rigorous work ethic.

I am now in my 50th year, and back in this place where I learned to "sit and see;" to basically "do nothing." As I look back on the 40-some years between then and now... it saddens me slightly that the three most common responses to my recommendation that we all take regular retreats into "doing nothing-ness" have revolved around assertions of my "being lazy," or "being in denial of reality" and even outright fear. Fear (and skepticism), I suppose, of the notion that someone can truly have "absolutely nothing" going on inside their head. I wonder, sometimes, if Ulla faced those same responses.

I know she and my father would occasionally have heated debates about him always being "so busy" and needing to slow down, and he would assert (as I recall) that she was "out of touch" (with reality). She, in turn, would counter his protestations by telling him that we all have choices, and that he didn't "have to" do so much, he "chose to" do so much.

The bottom line, for me, is that even though we may at times feel like we "have to" do a bunch of things in our lives... we ultimately choose to do those things. Sometimes our reasons are good, sometimes they are not, and sometimes we "stay busy" out of habit, rather than need... or out of some kind of fear that (part of?) our reality will somehow collapse if we choose to not-do something. But to say that we "have to" and there is "no choice" is-- in 95% of cases-- a form of self-deception... most likely we are making an unconscious (or conscious) choice to not do something unpopular, even if it's what we most want to do.

And so, I am going to sit and see, for a while...

1 comment:

  1. Peter, my friend, you are one of the lucky ones. It was really not until almost my 50th year that I learned that doing nothing was really something to look forward to. As I look back I had flashes of doing nothing throughout my life, times when I would just sit in the woods or in a boat out on the lake. These were lonely times that I somehow enjoyed. But it was not until I met Tracy that I learned there was no guilt in doing nothing, it is actually an art. now after 14 years of practice I am finally getting good at it and find that there is a time to do nothing!


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