By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
We spend almost no time doing nothing. Our lives are perpetually filled to the breaking point with people, priorities and projects. Because of globe-shrinking, distance erasing connectivity, instant communication and universal integration, the barriers that used to exist between leisure and work are gone. We are constantly engaged in some way. A state of circular and perpetual multi-tasking and never-ending partial distraction.
It’s difficult to say for certain if these societal and cultural changes have made us more productive. They may have. But from an innate need for emotional and mental survival there has certainly been an odd “creep” of snack-sized idleness into our longer and longer work days. We may say we “worked 12 hours”, but what we really did was spend 12 hours in our work place, with probably 70-90% of it productive (if we’re exceptionally good) and the remainder doing some compromised loafing for the purpose of trying to build some mental space between solace and servitude.
We don’t have to read far into philosophy to see a historical reverence for doing nothing, and the remarkable possibilities it presents. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, author of the Tao de Ching, permeated his text with the infinite value of empty space. Lao Tzu observes that it is not the walls of a bowl that make it useful, but the empty space inside. He talks about the hollow space at the center of a wheel, around which all things rotate. Lao Tzu also explores the abundance that flows through an empty mind, and that when the mind is truly open, the entire universe is free to flow through it. That idea is both intoxicating, and terrifying. It offers boundless possibility, but at the cost of our deepest held beliefs. And therein lies our terror at being idle; we actually have to deal with ourselves in honesty.
Part of the reason we try to avoid the vastness of doing nothing is because, in this space we are forced to examine ourselves. In a world of decreasing depth and increasing materialism rife with conspicuous experience, this deeply intrinsic self-inventory can be frightening. What the hell are we actually doing? Why? What is it for and what is the end game? That is heavy stuff, best put off until our final days when we may be forced to confront it in discomfort, fear and declining health.
If you’ve ever seen the process of an old person dying of natural causes in America, it is a deeply, but secretly, ritualized event. The person gets bad news and performs some mental processing. They realize they are on a short, one-way timeline to the end of their lives. They conduct a hasty inventory of their life, attempting to extract some meaning from it that transcends the duration of time they were actually here. About the time they fail to achieve that meaning- when they reach the horrible realization that most of their pursuits have been hollow time-wasters calibrated to benefit a common economy, it becomes too painful to bear and the drugs come out. We quietly put that person out of their misery, and ours. We remove them from the terrifying example that will also be our experience when our time comes. But don’t worry, there are plenty of drugs to go around, and they are administered freely at our moment of final reckoning, so we don’t have deal with the fact that we wasted a huge portion of our lives in the pursuit of things and hollow status.
While this is a dreadfully dreary narrative, its reciprocal offers boundless hope. Our world is equally as vast as it has ever been, and now we experience it in greater depth and at faster speed than any time in human history. We are trying to drink life from a fire hose at full flow. While the high-pressure cascade of water can rip our lips off, if we just build some distance from it, the spray alone will keep our minds and spirits hydrated with an abundance previously unimagined. In these occasional and precious empty spaces of doing nothing, all things flow inward. Ideas, inspirations, peace, priorities, even pain- to be processed and purged in the healing process that is our perpetual psyche- flows through our mind. We get a chance to finally inhale fully and deeply, and deliver the big exhale. Therein lies the precious value of doing absolutely nothing.