I recently heard this expression- dolce far niente—which translates to— the sweetness of doing nothing. Of course, in Italian it sounds so much more luxurious and there is something so amazingly simple yet profound about it. Unfortunately doing nothing is often not seen as a treat. Instead, it is judged as a trick of time that should be filled with being productive. Why is it considered bad to take some time in our life and do absolutely nothing?
As a mother of a soon-to-be five year old, I relish those moments when I have absolutely nothing to do. It’s a rare occurrence but when it happens, man, I feel this excitement bubbling up at the prospect of a wide open space in time. The irony is, as soon as I know I have that opening, I think of all the things I can do to fill it in order to make the most of it. And then, before you know it, the guilt creeps in. Guilt is a common maternal emotion but you don’t have to be a parent to feel it. Society has made sure that if we’re not filling up our time with something, whether it is working, exercising, self-growth, wellness, mindfulness, or mindless scrolling, we are going to be left behind at the station with the train to success and happiness chugging away with everyone else on it. There is judgment attached to how we spend our time. We are left feeling so afraid of “wasting” time that even when we’re on vacation, some of us feel compelled to do stuff.
I know where this guilt comes from, for me anyway. My mother never believed in being bored. She still doesn’t. She is someone who knows that time is precious and should never be taken for granted. And she would always feel guilty when she would be relaxing watching a movie. Even to this day, when she has earned the right to just retire completely. Perhaps it was the influence of my grandparents’ generation where work always came first. Jobs were hard to come by and they were poor. So any “free” time would be used to find or do work. That rubbed off on my mother who lived through the harsh reality of China’s communist takeover and Hong Kong’s increase in population in the 1950s where there were not enough jobs to go around. So relaxing was a luxury that really didn’t exist until she put her head to her pillow every night as she fell asleep.
That kind of experience leaves a mark on one’s soul. It did on her and to some extent, onto my brother and me. But I have slowly come round to the belief that in order for me to be productive in other areas of my life whether as a parent, wife, or professional, I need to be able to leave literal space in mind and calendar to just be, to just do nothing.
For some, this void in time and space is the place to be feared. We build up metaphoric structures around us to ensure we don’t ever have time to ourselves. This “Monophobia” or “autophobia” can result in decisions being made to avoid ever being alone. Decisions like unhealthy relationships with others, substances, and ourselves. It stems from varied experiences from our childhood or the influence our primary caregivers, those who had the most profound impact on our day to day lives, had on us, or even events that have made us feel insecure, unsafe in our own company. The fear of the void means doing nothing on our own is a no-go zone. And our society today has been an enabler to this phobia with all forms of entertainment and distractions available to us 24/7 literally at our fingertips.
In order to feel comfortable with being on alone and doing nothing, Karin Ardht, PhD writes in Psychology Today, “We need to do the difficult, but necessary, work of regaining access to our experiential thickness and generating our own images and desires apart from those we’ve been spoon-fed by mass culture. Practicing the art of solitude — i.e., cultivating the ability to be alone well — presents us with an opportunity to reclaim that plenitude.” She adds, “Being alone well isn’t really about developing hobbies and interests and things to do when alone. Developing the capacity to be alone well means developing a greater tolerance for, and intimacy with, your experience — the emotional, cognitive, visceral, imaginative, and sensory moment-to-moment arisings that constitute your basic aliveness. Many of us live in a state of chronic distraction from our experience. Being alone well means being capable of entering more fully into your experience. It’s about cultivating more unmediated presence to your experience and to the real, concrete world that surrounds you.”
In yoga, the end of a class is when we take part in what is considered to be the most important and powerful pose of the session: Savasana. Also known as corpse pose, it is where we lie on our back, legs out front, arms along our sides, palms facing up, and we just allow our breath to fall into its natural rhythm. It’s when we absorb the benefits of our yoga practice: the cardio, the strength resistance, the stretching, the mindful moves. Savasana as written by Sandra Anderson in Yoga International, “helps the nervous system make the shift back to its restorative mode. This is particularly important, because the nervous system quickly turns on the fight-or-flight switch (which is our daily normal state as stressed out beings), but is slow to switch back to restorative mode. By initiating a state of relaxation and quieting our nervous system and physiological functioning in shavasana, we free up energy. Tension drains from muscles governed by the autonomic nervous system, giving us access to the energy formerly locked up. That’s why we feel refreshed after a relaxation exercise. We can also use this newly available energy to move us beyond our normal awareness, to free us from our defenses, to give us access to the unconscious, and to allow the creative aspect of our being to awaken. We can then tap the deeper levels of our energy. To be relaxed is to let go into the present moment; to drop effort, judgments, “ought tos,” shoulds, and criticisms of ourselves, the situations around us, and other people.” See, the sweetness of doing nothing is more than having an awareness of the present moment, it is the nourishment a moment being present can give.
What we find, as stated above, that doing nothing allows our mind to wander and who knows where that wandering can take us? Penny Lodge writes in The Drum, “When asked what advice he would pass on to aspiring writers, author Neil Gaiman said: “You have to let yourself get so bored that your mind has nothing better to do than tell itself a story.” Likewise, the Turner Prize-winning sculptor Anish Kapoor has talked of it being “precisely in those moments when I don’t know what to do, [that] boredom drives one to try.” In admittedly less eloquent terms, Jimi Hendrix puts his reinvention of guitar playing down to the fact that he was “bored shitless” while touring with bands before finding fame. He said: “I didn’t hear any guitar players doing anything new and I was bored out of my mind.”
Whenever my kid tells me he’s bored, I reply with “that’s wonderful!” I am excited for what can emerge from this moment of seemingly having nothing to do. Pharrell Williams once told me when I interviewed him in Hong Kong that the way we think about our kids educational experience, both in and out of school, doesn’t allow for boredom, for space to think differently, for our attention to relax and be encouraged to expand in its own way. There is a fear that a lack of control of a student’s time and mind would mean anarchy and disarray. Yet, as he said, “That kid that’s daydreaming, that’s the next book or chair or building. That’s where all the great stuff comes from…We get inspired by things we see or hear or things we encounter, experiences. But then there are moments when those things run out, when you have nothing else and you’re tapped out. That is the best place you could ever be, because now the only thing you have is intuition.And for me, I can go and shower or listen to running water or on a plane. Your imagination just wanders off. That’s the gift.”
When I used to interview chief executives, politicians, and celebrities they all said the same thing when I asked them what luxury meant to them. They said time. Time with their loved ones. Time to rest. Time to just be. During the lockdown this most valued of treasures was something we had a lot of yet there was the pressure to find ways to occupy it by achieving something, building something, finding new hobbies, being productive with the use of this rare availability of our attention. But I believe, perhaps among the most amazing feats is the ability to get comfortable with not doing anything. It doesn’t make me lazy. It makes me appreciative of what this space is doing for me whether physiologically, mentally, emotionally, or creatively.
Most of the time we are not even conscious of our own breathing. That’s how distracted we are. And our body is a beautiful machine that, if we’re lucky, works so well and efficiently, we don’t ever have to take notice or ever worry about our breath. What we don’t notice though is that for the most part, the breaths we take is the kind that is constricted, stress-filled, trapped-in-one’s chest. So if doing nothing, and revelling in it, means that all that ever comes out of it is an ability to take a deep and fulfilling breath, expanding our lungs with life-affirming oxygen and energy enabling us to see and feel our surroundings with such clarity and wonder, well that is life in its sweetest simplicity.