The Importance of Doing Nothing

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Cloudscape, Wildomar, California

In an age of constant movement, nothing is so important as sitting still.“– Pico Iyre

This summer I was taking photos of clouds, fascinated by their shapes, something that is uncommon in Delhi’s skies this time of year where mostly what one sees is a haze hanging in the street from the ongoing air pollution. Gavin Pretor-Pinney, a graphic designer from the UK moved to Rome and began noticing clouds in paintings and it made him think he should do something more with clouds. He gave a lecture at an arts festival, and the Cloud Appreciation Society was born. The society post images, poetry and music inspired by clouds, and has a manifesto that essentially declares if we had blue skies every day, it would be monotonous. Clouds are nature’s poetry, expressing mood. Their beauty is overlooked, and contemplating them benefits the soul, the manifesto describes. I’ve got to say, the benefits are certainly enticing.

In his interview with Guy Raz on the TED radio program, Pretor-Pinney explains that gazing at clouds benefits us, and that we should really look up more often. “We need to be reminded that slowing down and being in the present – not thinking about what you’ve got to do and what you should have done, but just being here, letting your imagination lift from the everyday concerns down here and just being in the present. It’s good for you. It’s good for your ideas. It’s good for your creativity. It’s good for your soul.” I imagine staring at clouds does something similar for the mind as going for a walk–it encourages associative thinking and nurtures creativity as a result.

Currently, the air quality at the measuring station across the street of particulate matter in the air at 2.5 is at 253, which causes “significant aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; significant increase in respiratory effects in general population,” according to the US embassy air quality data site here in Delhi. It hasn’t been a good day, overall, for cloud viewing, but the idea of finding value in letting the mind wander, allowing it to take a break from thinking about the long list of what needs to get done has got me interested wanting to drift with clouds. Recently, I participated in a guided imagery in which the leader asked people to go in their minds to a place that made them very happy. I went directly to my garden in California, and I visualized myself sitting in the dirt, letting it sift through my fingers. I wasn’t traveling to some fabulous location to dive, wasn’t wandering down a beautiful street in a foreign city or climbing a mountain. I was doing the most mundane thing, doing nothing, really, and was feeling supremely content. What is it about doing nothing that is so satisfying?

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Southern California clouds at sunset

It seems I’m not the only one thinking about the need to simply do nothing, Pico Iyer, known for his writing about global citizenship, in his TEDRadio hour interview, also with Guy Raz, “How Can We Find More Time To Be Still,” says he left New York because he was “making a living there, but wasn’t making a life.” What is more satisfying in life, he says, relationships and quiet exploration–the invisible things. Most people live in cities where the pace is intense. Often work place increases its demands. It is the constant speed of everything we do, Iyre suggests, that creates the yearning for the opposite. “…in an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.”  The desire, the need, to do nothing is felt by many. Lawton Ursey on the Forbes site talks about Andrew Smart’s book Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. He explains that research shows that when not focused on a specific task, the brain becomes more active, “more organized and engaged in idleness.” This is a positive thing. It seems that focusing too hard on getting things done, might actually make us less efficient. Doing nothing, it appears, is underrated.

When we have to make difficult decisions, when we’re under stress, we are actually less able to see the big picture, less able to think clearly and act out of a wiser, balanced position. What can we do to take back our lives from the pressure of obligations and to create more space? Many people are talking about the need to create space in their lives so they can live a reflective life, but how many of us actually do it? We are admonished to find balance, but the structures and systems we live in make that very difficult. Over 200 years ago, Wordsworth wrote, “The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” It doesn’t seem much has changed in this respect since he penned those lines.

photo (10)When my recent 49 days of purposeful observation ended, the thing I realized is how much I have cramped my life into a corner, and how in need I am of opening up more space for being. My intention was to use the observation time to make more space in my life. Sometimes my “purposeful observation” was literally reduced to a few seconds.  I don’t think anything will open up and change much in my life if I continue to let the pressures of the world around me control my life. I must return to a practice that allows me to learn how to create space, and create life for myself. I suspect most of us can’t move away to a new city right now like Pico Iyre did. If we want more space in our lives to live and move and experience being, perhaps it would help if we could find one simple thing we can begin with where we are, and then start to practice it. For example, I might set a focus for the day, something I am going to purposefully work on, then coming back to it at the end of the day and keeping track of how it went. Something I long for is a sense of spaciousness, so maybe lighting a candle purposefully might be a good focus practice. For others who have a similar need, maybe it is sitting in the doorway sun for 10 minutes in the morning, if you have a house where you can do that, or for others it might be listening to a piece of music with full attention–one small thing to create a crack that will lead to a larger crack in the structure we’ve built that doesn’t makes space for breath, for living the other part of ourselves–our unlived lives, so to speak. Richard Rohr in his article in Sojourners, advocates a daily time of silence. I’m reminded that catholics have a practice of the Examen, and this might be useful for some. We don’t need to do all, be all, have all. Maybe we need to remind ourselves of  E.F. Schumacher’s idea more often, that small is beautiful, as his book title says. It can be enough.

We can be intentional with our time and presence. Creating the conditions for change and then practicing them until they habituate is necessary. All skills take training, even creating space for rest.

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