The Brilliance of Doing Nothing

 

photo by Joe Parks

photo by Joe Parks

When I think about my favorite summer memories, it’s when I wasn’t actually doing anything. I remember one night when there was a comet show and I was lying on the seat of my 12-foot aluminum boat, floating on the French River. Just watching the sky for what felt like forever.

Or the time I was looking out the cottage window late one night and marveling at the full moon that had lit up the beach. I just stood there and listened to the crickets and took in the scene.

That is the power of doing nothing. Time stands still. Or does it slow down?

Summer is an amazing reminder that it is good to just hang out and watch the world go by. When I do that 25823676322_d68c5cae86_mI feel so relaxed. So happy.

 

What I’m describing goes by many names- Hanging out, wasting time, leisure, doing nothing.

 

It turns out that ‘hanging out’ is actually not something to be avoided. It is something each of us needs to relieve stress and keep us sane.

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of “The lost art of hanging out” for a few years now. Maybe it’s because I feel like I can never stop. With the encroachment on my time of my phone and endless texts, emails and social media stuff, I just feel like I have no space to just be anymore. Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I am a meditator and I teacher of it too. Through the formal practice of meditation I’ve been actively committed to just being or hanging out for about 5 years now. It has provided such incredible health benefits for me that I wanted to use this blog and my most recent column on North by Northwest (CBC radio one in British Columbia- I’ll post the podcast when it is available) to pass along the science around hanging out and some tips on how you can make space and practice it for yourself without starting a meditation practice.

 

What kind of doing nothing or hanging out are we talking about?

 

It’s a space. But not a drop out and distract space. It is being aware and present but not making busy work.

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Think about the feeling you have when you are in a zen-inspired
garden.

 

 

Look at pictures of modern homes and their minimalist design.

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You can ‘feel’ the space. There is a fullness to the space. Just like an inflated balloon. The space we feel is the same that is keeping the balloon sides expanded.

 

 

 

Why make time for this?

 

 

Studies show that when you make space this way your stress level decreases. You are calmer. Your blood pressure goes down. You are happier.

And as a bonus- letting your brain have space allows for epiphanies to arise. There are many examples of scientists laboring over a discovery only to have the answer show up ‘out of the blue’ when they weren’t even thinking about it. Isaac Newton discovered gravity in a flash when he looked out his kitchen window and saw an apple fall from a tree. The flash comes from a mind with spaciousness.

 

Beware the Virtue Trap

 

We often resist doing nothing in this way because we believe that good people are busy people. Doing nothing sounds lazy. Julia Cameron of the well know book The Artist’s Way calls this The Virtue Trap. Don’t fall for it. Working endlessly only leads to burnout and a lack of creative problem solving. There is no merit in exhaustion and depletion.

 

Show me the proof!

 

In The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, there is some fascinating information on how our brain solves problems. Scientists from MIT in the 1990’s discovered that the basal ganglia (our primitive golf ball brain in the centre) is active when we are figuring things out. But the brain wants to have space for larger and bigger thoughts, so as soon as something can be made habitual, and require less from the basal ganglia, then the brain says Hurray! It gets a habit going and checks out. When that happens the other layers of our brain are free to roam to create, to dream and to imagine in the present moment. Think about learning to drive. When you started it took a lot of energy the entire time, but after a while, it becomes so second nature that you often can’t even remember driving from one place to another. That’s the basal ganglia at work.

 

How do I get my brain to make this space?

Studies show that you can create ‘space’ for your brain by engaging in simple and repetitive actives. Those things that keep that part of the brain engaged and busy and frees up the rest. Think running, swimming or knitting or coloring. These are all ideal activities to engage in that can give you a feeling of spaciousness. Most recently coloring books have been terrific for helping people find a sense of space and peace. If you want something that is even less active to create your experience of doing nothing, how about rocking in a rocking chair? A researcher at Princeton found that rocking, in it’s repetition, gives the benefits of spaciousness. He found it released serotonin- the happy drug we make, and people reported feeling calmer. Less stressed. Anything with repetition will do.

 

Ancient teachings with the same message

 

I’ve given you the current science on this, but you can look further back to. There are Tibetan teachings you can read about the wisdom energies. In fact, there is a great book about them by Irini Rockwell called The Five Wisdom Energies. The fifth energy she lists is called Buddha and translates in this instance as Spaciousness. Spaciousness is a way of being that you can create for yourself. You can find it in your daily life through simple steps like this says Rockwell:

 

-Wear muted colors, no extra bling

-Do as little as possible

Just leave all that ‘busy work’ for now.

-Eat simple foods, on the bland side.

Consciously don’t entertain or stir yourself up.

-If you have to see people, speak slowly; leave pauses in your speech

 

I would add, put your phone on Do Not Disturb while you go on an aimless walk. Give yourself an hour sometime this week, and just don’t achieve anything. Just make space. Be. Hang out.

 

Take a stress break this summer by trying out some of these techniques and build it into your regular day. It’s not about a large block of time. It’s about setting an intention and test-driving this stress buster. Let me know what you find. I’d love to hear about how practicing hanging out benefited you.

 

I will be sharing my observations when I come back from a week away off the grid on a gulf island this August. I am looking forward to as much nothing as I can get.

 

 

 

3 Comments The Brilliance of Doing Nothing

  1. Janet

    Hi Rebecca! Enjoyed your posting, it gave me some great insight. I also have an off grid getaway planned for August and will practice some of your suggestions. Happy do nothing summer.

    Reply
  2. Peter.

    One summer while camping on Salt Spring Island I experienced one of those magical moments that I think fits your description of the joy of just ‘being’
    Around sunset I was passing a farm gate, it was very quiet and peaceful, the only sounds being the birds singing and bees humming in the blossoms. I leaned on the gate for several minutes and soaked this all in and came back each evening at the same time for more.
    Moments I will always remember.

    Reply

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