The Value of Doing Nothing

When was the last time you did absolutely nothing for a few minutes (let alone an entire hour)? If you’re like most people, you won’t remember, and that’s likely because it hasn’t happened in a while.

Typically after I have had lunch, I sit down in a Lotus pose for a few minutes (as it’s great for digestion). During this sit-down, I am often tempted to do something — read or to listen to music/podcasts. This is when I (sometimes) need to fight myself to just sit and do nothing for 15-30 minutes. It’s not just the external things I am resisting. Even after having fought those, there is internal chatter to deal with by way of involuntary thinking. My point is, it can be increasingly challenging to quiet your mind since your mind cannot stand silence (until the latter gets the better of it).

Here’s the thing: we don’t let ourselves get bored anymore. We are quick to fill every bit of “free time” we have with things — music, books, videos, podcasts, social media, messaging, etc. How many of us do these things during our daily commute, waiting in line to check out, or during our lunch time at work? Some of us even carry our phones to the restroom in the morning, as ridiculous as it sounds. We read papers and magazines (which is the worst thing we can do in the morning) to keep ourselves occupied. We justify this behavior by telling ourselves we need to be informed about the world; otherwise, we won’t be able to carry on with our day. But this is just a lie we tell ourselves.

We are addicted to keeping ourselves stimulated all of the time. I wrote this in an earlier draft:

If you get bored, then that’s great. We don’t remember what it’s like to get bored anymore because we are so used to stimulating the reward circuits in our brain all the time with new information.

We are not unlike those who are addicted to drugs and need a fix when it’s “time”. This is not an extreme example by any means, and it’s not just true with adults. I have seen it happen firsthand with my nephew and niece. They can’t have their meals without being stimulated (watching TV or using their iPad). This partially goes back to parenting (or lack thereof).

My father can’t have his meals without setting his phone on the table. When his phone is off the table, he remains distracted by his smart watch. My mother finds it hard to let go of her phone in the kitchen. Other times, she is addicted to her iPad, which she uses to binge-watch shows on YouTube. I suspect they are not the only ones doing this.

We don’t always need external stimuli to keep ourselves occupied. It’s possible to do nothing and still have your monkey mind thinking about all kinds of things furiously. This happens to me sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night to go to the restroom and find it difficult to sleep again quickly. I find myself involuntarily thinking about things.

We find it challenging to even spend a few minutes doing one thing at a time, let alone doing nothing at all. We are addicted to being constantly stimulated all of the time that even trying to spend a few minutes away from it all seems like a monumental task. What have we done to ourselves?

We may even prefer spending time with others over ourselves. With others, we can escape our everyday realities to talk about worldly things, but with ourselves, we need to face our realities and fears (if we can even manage to sit alone for a while without doing anything), which makes us uncomfortable, so we naturally avoid it. This could also be the reason why taking a meditation retreat scares people, because they are afraid to think about what they might find within (by depriving themselves of any external stimuli). It’s like when you stop taking drugs or give up smoking or drinking cold turkey — you experience withdrawal symptoms. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. The problem is we don’t want to go through the worst part to reach that better state.

Contrary to what you might believe, doing nothing is not a waste of time, but it’s the most powerful thing you are not doing right now. Because we feel this constant need to keep our minds occupied with doing one thing or another, we never give ourselves the space to do nothing. It can be quite exhausting being always connected to the world. Sometimes, it pays to disengage and spend time with oneself.

Here is why I think doing nothing is the most important thing we could be doing every day.

We get caught in the circus of our minds, so we never pay attention to ourselves. To know thyself is the greatest challenge of a human. It’s ironic that we hardly devote any time to listen to ourselves, let alone understanding, in our everyday lives. We say we don’t have the time to sit in solitude and meditate, but we don’t have time not to. The busier we get, the more space we need to create for ourselves.

We need to stop seeking the company of others (and of things) and shift our awareness from life’s mundane things to our being. Sadhguru, an Indian yogi, mystic, and author said:

You must sit alone — it is very important. The company of the divine is available only to those who do not seek company. If you have something to share, that’s different but if you are seeking company, the divine thinks ‘Okay, he’s seeking somebody else’s company. Why am I needed?’

It’s easy to hide things in the company of others, but until we sit alone, we know nothing. We need to give ourselves the chance to connect with something deep within us. Getting there is impossible until you actively stop engaging your mind. True wisdom comes not from adding more, but by slowly uncovering the mask you have on you. As Lord Krishna said to the great warrior Arjuna on the battlefield, “Remember, who you are”, when he found himself conflicted with fighting his family. If all of us truly knew ourselves, the world would be a much better place.

We think we can do more than one thing at a time, but that’s just delusional. In order to be able to do nothing at all, we need to be able to do one thing at a time first. Until we are able to do that, sitting down and doing nothing can seem like reaching a distant planet.

For instance, when I am driving, I just drive. I don’t listen to music, radio, or podcasts. I don’t enjoy doing things passively any more. I like to give full attention to things I am doing in the moment. When I am listening to music, I am just doing that. Do this with anything you do. Have your meals devoid of any external (or internal) stimuli. Savor every bite and be present. Of course, you have to be intentional first and then practice doing one thing at a time.

Once you’re able to do one thing at a time, then, you can start by spending a few minutes every day in solitude. Work your way up to an hour. Then, do it twice a day. Then, maybe take a 10-day meditation retreat. Israeli historian and professor Yuval Noah Harari is famous for doing month-long meditation retreats every year, which he believes helped him write Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and other books.

Schedule periods of alone time in your daily life. If you know you’re going to be commuting in the morning and evening, then those are perfect times for doing meditation. Dan Harris, an American journalist, is famous for using any bit of discretionary time for meditation-induced equanimity and simply being with himself. It has made all the difference in his life. When someone would ask him why he meditated, his response was it made him 10% happier.

Go against the trend of society by consuming information mindfully. Be super intentional about doing things before doing them. If you find yourself wanting to do something, ask yourself why you want to do that thing. That response will answer the question if what you’re about to do is intentional or not. Remember, we always have a choice whether we realize it or not.

Rather than impulsively whipping out your phone without any forethought, doing nothing should be your default state when you find some unexpected time for yourself, like waiting in line, waiting in a doctor’s chamber, etc.

I would be amiss if I didn’t talk about how there might be benefits to sometimes doing things passively. For instance, when I can’t fall asleep after waking in the middle of the night, I’ll sometimes listen to a podcast to put myself to sleep so I can stop having that internal chatter without actively listening to the podcast. Similarly, there are others who have the TV on while doing the work, which in some ways acts as white noise.

It can be quite challenging to sit down and do nothing at all in a time when we find it difficult to do even one thing at a time. But if done consistently every day, it can help us slow down, be in control of ourselves, be more tolerant with others, and lead a more intentional life. I doubt there is anything more important than that.

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