“It is awfully hard work doing nothing.”
Do you ever do nothing? When you do, how do you feel about it…….Guilty? Lazy? A ‘Layabout’?
From childhood, many of us have been impatiently urged to ‘get on your bike,’ or to ‘get off your backsides and do something constructive!’
Doing nothing is often linked to being idle, a rather pejorative word.
Robert Frederick Blum – Two Idlers [1888-89]Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”
But could doing nothing actually in itself be constructive?
The Buddhists and Daoists certainly think so.
“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.”
This quotation implies that there is a difference between the two states: ‘doing nothing’ and ‘being busy doing nothing.’
The former has possibilities…. the latter is surely about dodging life’s real issues, problems and anxieties, and it implies a lack of genuine productivity.
This is different from gentle pottering, which is, somehow, more constructive in terms of relaxing and doing what what we enjoy.
Being busy doing nothing can also take the form of gossip or empty talk, as a kind of avoidant and often defensive, meaningless filler of time and space.
“Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact.”George Eliot
“Without effort and willingness to experience pain and anxiety, nobody grows, in fact nobody achieves anything worth achieving.”
Erich Fromm, ‘The Art of Being.’
Doing nothing but being still and peaceful can often give us an opportunity to find solutions to problems and be at our most creative.
“Empty words show an empty mind, and silence speaks most eloquently of all.”
- Doing Nothing, Not Even Thinking……
Hideo Tanaka – Flower  Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
“Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), recieved a university professor who came to inqure about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps
Let us, for a moment, consider what is ’emptying one’s cup.’ Emptying the mind is often related to ‘not thinking.’ This is something of a contradiction, if you think about it.
How can we ‘not think’? If we are not thinking, does this mean our minds are blank, devoid of thought?
A Zen teacher explains:
‘When there is true no-thought, no-thought itself is not.’
The above statement seems to imply that, without thought, the mind is a total void.
So is there anything in our minds, if there is not thought? What might this state of mind mean for us? Could lack of thought, lack of no-thought, be a positive experience?
In fact, such an empty mind is what some who meditate aim to achieve: a relaxed mind, without the intrusiveness of thought, an immeasurably freeing and tranquil experience:
“Thinking no thing will limited-self unlimit.”
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones p.205)
Is this state, then, better described as a quiet mind, or is it an empty mind? The term mindfulness has its root in Buddhist practices. Yet mindfulness has the word ‘full’ in it, implying we are full-of-mind.
Buddhist Monk meditating under the shade of a tree in India. Chandrasen31. Wikimedia Commons.
“The ultimate happiness is doing nothing.”
Semb Thunes suggests instead that mindlessness is the opposite of mindfulness; this is a state of witlessness, of brainlessness, of the empty-headed, a foolish vacuousness that is quite different from the Buddhist state of serenity, which is a rarefied and enlightened state, free of worldly thoughts.
- Allowing Space To Discover Who We Are And What We Want In Life.
Norman Blamey – Reflections. Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
“The idea occurred to him when he was twenty. At first it was only a vague idea, a question looming — what should I do? — with an answer taking shape: nothing.”
Whilst Perec’s comment may be regarded as somewhat nihilistic, it could also be seen as a way of allowing waiting and decision-making time, in our high-pressure, quick-fix world.
Many people rush- or are rushed- into a decision about their future career.
When we are uncertain, it is best to allow ourselves the space and time to contemplate, reflect, be creative with our choices, instead of searching for instant answers.
(The Role of Doing Nothing In Psychotherapy has been discussed in a previous blog post entitled ‘Do We Always Have to Know? Thinking, Waiting and Not Knowing Part 2 : In Psychotherapy.” Jan 8th 2019.)
- When Doing Nothing Is Bad.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
A word of caution here: there are times to do nothing and there are certainly times, many times, when we have to do something. One of those times is when we witness abuse or evil.
Then we definitely need to do something, if we possibly can. Turning our backs or closing our eyes is not an option, for we will then become guilty of being bystanders.
“No such thing
“There comes a time when silence becomes dishonesty.”
Eduard Putra – Portrait of a Woman with Half-Closed Eyes.1900. Wikimedia Commons.
“What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.”
Being a bystander to some kind of atrocity or abuse can mean that the onlooker lacks courage, or perhaps is indifferent.
Staying passively watching, inactive and silent, or looking away when something could be done, no matter how small, makes the bystander complicit in the crime.
“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”
- The Value Of Doing Nothing In Nature.
Let us now return to the more beneficial aspects of doing nothing, the times when we can value the opportunities that Nature affords us, to relax, contemplate and enjoy the outdoors.
Rick Garland – Morning Sun. Acrylic on Canvas. Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
“The difficulty of always feeling that you ought to be doing something is that you tend to undervalue the times when you’re apparently doing nothing, and those are very important times.”
Vittorio Matteo Corcos – Dreams Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
“This is very important — to take leisure time. Pace is the essence. Without stopping entirely and doing nothing at all for great periods, you’re gonna lose everything…just to do nothing at all, very, very important. And how many people do this in modern society? Very few. That’s why they’re all totally mad, frustrated, angry and hateful.”
Doing nothing in the midst of nature can be very therapeutic.
We need to take time to pause, to smell the roses, and to stand and stare.
If we make space to look, and absorb what is around us, our lives will inevitably be enriched by the experience.
“I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
As though with your arms open.”
“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.’
A. A. Milne
The Waterlily Pond. Claude Monet. Wikimedia Commons.
“When was the last time you spent a quiet moment just doing nothing – just sitting and looking at the sea, or watching the wind blowing the tree limbs, or waves rippling on a pond, a flickering candle or children playing in the park?”
© Linda Berman.
If you do get round to doing something after reading this post, please will you follow this blog? I’d really appreciate your support. Many thanks, Linda.🌹