When was the last time you really did nothing? There is always something to do. Something to work on. Even when we do not feel like doing anything, we escape into distractions to keep our brains busy. But why do we do this?
Here at the Mindfulness Project we have 3 hours of free time in the afternoon. Even during this time people fit as much in as possible, overloading the day with talks and activities, seemingly haunted by the fear of missing out (FOMO) and the urge to make each hour a great travel experience. Until you realize that more is not always better. That learning to be with yourself, doing nothing in particular, enjoying the silence, has so much beauty. Happiness is right there to be harvested if you notice it. Unfortunately, being with yourself, undistracted, now requires intention and action. You need to actively carve out time to do this instead of the situation organically occurring.
Why we are so urged to keep ourselves busy
What is the point of undertaking yet another activity when you have all you need? Take an example of cats and dogs. These furry creatures can enjoy a full morning sitting in the windowsill and looking at the mailman passing by. Animals have no problems with idling for a while if they have shelter, love, and a full belly. Have you ever judged your pet for being lazy? But whenever you are being lazy yourself, the bad feelings arise and you judge yourself for throwing your life away by doing nothing.
It has to do with one of the most powerful, but also one of the most complicated parts of our nature: consciousness. Human beings are the only species that are able to think about their future and are aware that we only have a finite time on this planet. And therefore, we have the internal need to keep ourselves busy. The complicated part here is that we only are happily busy if we are busy for a reason.
We forgot how to rest
All of us used to be pretty good at resting. As little babies, we spent most of our day sleeping and just looking around. But as we grew older we forgot how to listen to our bodies. Especially when our body demands rest. Nowadays, it needs an active mindset to do nothing for a while. It sounds controversial and it is. “This afternoon, I will have a rest”, we tell ourselves. What actually happens is that you grab your phone and start scrolling on your favorite social media platform.
All the judgments on laziness in this world are not helping at all. We learned that we should not stare out of the window, that we should fill our days. Because you should live life to the fullest, right?
Living life to the fullest, however, does not mean filling life to the fullest. To live life is so much more than chaining together activities and distractions. It is the silence in between that gives real beauty. Giving your mind the rest to harvest the happiness of your previous activity and preparing you for the next one to come. You need the space between the things, the mental breaks. This is where ideas form and imagination arises. Or as reasoned in a working paper about Doing nothing: inactive states of mind can be an incubation period for future bursts of creativity.
With the huge amount of social media platforms, music, movies, workouts, Self-Love Challenges and many other distractions there for us to grasp, it has become too easy to ‘fill the gaps’. And while they may seem pleasurable at first, these gap-fillers become an addiction before you realize it and they start using US instead of us using THEM.
Exchanging bad habits for good ones
Hopefully, it is clear by now that we need to make an effort to get rid of the default time-filling behavior, and replace it with some quiet alternatives again. And to help you on the way, we have some tips to do ‘nothing’:
Yoga Nidra: Do you tend to go for a run or do a power yoga session as soon as you start being bored? Try a yoga nidra class. While yoga nidra is not completely ‘doing nothing’, it will bring you in a state of complete physical, mental and emotional relaxation. Mindfulness Project’s Kerri recorded a great yoga nidra class that you can watch here.
Listen to silence: If your gap filling activity is listening to music, try to listen to silence. Did you know Spotify has this ‘silent song’? But of course, pressing pause is just as effective.
Watch nature: For those who easily end up watching television, try go for a walk. There is a huge television outside that gives you the sounds of nature, and the silence to listen to yourself. Or watch a nature video on YouTube, preferably without any narration, like this one.
Meditate: Do you start planning your time ahead as soon as you get bored? Sending messages to your friends if they want to hang out? Try to meditate to see what is actually happening in your mind. Get in a comfortable sitting position, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Use this Self-Love meditation with Christian if you need guidance.
Even the word ‘laziness’ conjures up some negative connotations. No one wants to be labelled as lazy. The term ‘active laziness’ is discussed by Sogyal Rinpoche in his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:
“How many of us are swept away by what I have come to call an “active laziness”? Naturally there are different species of laziness: Eastern and Western.
The Eastern style is like the one practiced to perfection in India. It consists of hanging out all day in the sun, doing nothing, avoiding any kind of work or useful activity, drinking cups of tea, listening to Hindi film music blaring on the radio, and gossiping with friends.
Western laziness is quite different. It consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so that there is no time at all to confront the real issues. If we look into our lives, we will see clearly how many unimportant tasks, so-called “responsibilities” accumulate to fill them up.
One master compares them to “housekeeping in a dream.” We tell ourselves we want to spend time on the important things of life, but there never is any time. Even simply to get up in the morning, there is so much to do: open the window, make the bed, take a shower, brush your teeth, feed the dog or cat, do last night’s washing up, discover you are out of sugar or coffee, go and buy them, make breakfast—the list is endless. Then there are clothes to sort out, choose, iron, and fold up again. And what about your hair, or your makeup? Helpless, we watch our days fill up with telephone calls and petty projects, with so many responsibilities—or shouldn’t we call them “irresponsibilities”?
Our lives seem to live us, to possess their own bizarre momentum, to carry us away; in the end we feel we have no choice or control over them. Of course we feel bad about this sometimes, we have nightmares and wake up in a sweat, wondering: “What am I doing with my life?” But our fears only last until breakfast time; out comes the briefcase, and back we go to where we started. I think of the Indian saint, Ramakrishna, who said to one of his disciples: “If you spent one-tenth of the time you devoted to distractions like chasing women or making money to spiritual practice, you would be enlightened in a few years!”
Active laziness is not an absence of thinking, it is a creation of space in your day for reflections, priority assessments, self check-ins. Active laziness can be such a pleasure: choosing to really do nothing, to embrace the boredom, and to feel your body resting. Give yourself the love and rest you need. No need to consume, no need to plan, no need to go out. Notice the greed that comes up to ‘help’ you out of your tiredness, but not acting to it. Notice your mind telling you that happiness is to be found outside, but not acting on it. Meanwhile enjoy the happiness that is there for you already: inside.
To practice active laziness, start no new activities after you read this. Close your eyes or keep them open, lay down or stay seated. That is not of importance. What is important is that you try to really relax, unforced and guilt-free. Notice what is happening in your mind, the thoughts that get produced. You might soon feel boredom coming up. Or aversion to this practice as it seems so inefficient. That is when your practice actually starts. Observe those thoughts, embrace those thoughts, enjoy them. Remember that they are only thoughts and you do not have to act according to them. Enjoy the time you create for yourself. The time to listen to yourself. And that is it. Nothing. Or as the Buddha said: “Nothing to be, nothing to do, nothing to become”.