How could doing nothing be a thing? And how is it possible to do nothing while living in a city and leading a busy life? After all, most cities seem to have a unique powerful force that calls for constant movement and pushes people to do more, achieve more and be more. Plus, if you do nothing in your life, how can you reach your goals, achieve your dreams, or realize projects that are important to you?
In today’s article we’ll dive into these questions, but before we do that, let’s answer an important question first: what does doing nothing imply?
Contrary to what many would expect, this kind of doing nothing is not about encouraging you to stay in your pajamas all day, lie in bed and refuse to participate in the world. We will approach this from a philosophy and a way of living that can allow us to be fully present with what is. It will allow us to trust the rhythm of life and how things naturally unfold.
Although it may sound hard to believe, doing nothing is indeed a practice, and a very ancient one at that. Wu wei (pronounced wooh-way) is a Chinese word that has been translated as “non-doing,” “doing nothing,” or “non-resistance.” The idea of wu wei has appeared in the Tao Te Ching which is said to have been written roughly 2,500 years ago, and is considered to be one of the wisest texts ever produced in human history. This universally-applicable piece of work was written by Lao Tzu and is central to the practice of Taoism.
In some excerpts of the Tao Te Ching, Tzu writes:
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another
Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing
Creating, yet not possessing,
Working, yet not taking credit.
If nothing is done, then all will be well
Wu wei does not mean to cease all action, rather, to take effortless and strategic action with a mind that is soft and alert. Strategic action requires us to act at the right time and with the right rhythm, and sometimes it requires us to do nothing at all. This delicate balance between action and inaction has also been discussed in another important text central to Vedantic thought: The Bhagavad Gita.
Doing nothing from the perspective of wu wei is a way of life that ensures we go with the flow and not against it. It encourages us to be at peace with whatever it is that we are or aren’t doing or whatever is happening in the moment, including the silent gaps of our lives — those that we often try to fill in with things, relationships, experiences or entertainment.
Have you noticed that, more often than not, the moment we have some free time in our already-busy schedules, we hurry to fill it with some kind of task? This could be responding to an email, sitting in front of the TV flipping through the channels, checking our phones while we wait in line at the supermarket or while we ride public transport, hurrying to grab our mobiles when a notification comes through or spending hours navigating social media… It’s as if we have declared war on free time.
There can be many reasons as to why we are constantly trying to fill our “empty” time with more things, experiences and entertainment. As a society, we may have come to view doing nothing as being lazy and negative because we may not be contributing to development and economic growth as others would expect us to do.
On a personal level, I believe that whenever we find ourselves in a context that triggers feelings of loneliness and isolation, even if we are surrounded by people, we feel discomfort, and thus an urge to make it go away arises. This is understandable because we are mostly social creatures. In one way or another, we want to feel and stay connected to something or to others. The technological progress we have made over the years has played a big role in fulfilling this need.
The moments when nothing “important” or “exciting” is going on in your life, how do you feel? Do you feel bored? Unproductive? Guilty for not doing anything? If so, what do you do? Do you reach for your phone and surf the internet until the feeling is gone? Do you turn on the TV and flip through the channels until you find something to distract you from your current mood? Do you go eat? Do you engage in more tasks to keep you busy even if it’s your time off? Think about how you react to the feeling for a second.
Have in mind that there is nothing inherently wrong in feeling how you feel and responding in a manner that seems suitable to you in that moment, whether that is spending your free time reading a good book or watching cat videos online. The key distinction here is whether you are doing it because you just want to be inspired by a good book or have a laugh while looking at incredibly adorable kittens, or because you have the urge to fill that time with something with the sole intention of making feelings of discomfort go away.
It is said that the Nobel Prize-winning writer André Gide hired native guides when traveling through Africa in the 1920s. One morning as he was getting ready to head out and explore, his guides sat in a circle and refused to move. When Gide inquired as to why they wouldn’t move, they replied, “Don’t hurry us. We’re waiting for our souls to catch up.”
This encapsulates the essence of doing nothing, a sacred time when we can invite our souls back into our center so that we can experience the whole of life. To do this is not to be lazy and it doesn’t require you to let go of your life as you know it, but to let go of all of that which is not essential in the moment. Although it may seem passive to many, it can actually involve intense inner work, for it is only in stillness of mind that we can reconnect with our souls and the deepest parts of our being. Doing nothing can become a wonderful opportunity to become aware of what is essential and of our soul’s journey, and to reconnect to our essence.
For our day to day lives, when we are always doing something and filling our time with more things to do, our thoughts lose clarity and meaning — so pausing to enjoy a moment of non-doing promotes a positive state where we can relax and free ourselves from certain life situations that cause us stress. This is why doing nothing is actually an important component of our well-being.
Life in the city can be fast, stressful and full of things to do, so adding more to that is truly robbing ourselves of precious time to explore the depths of our being and what it means to truly live effortlessly.
As I already mentioned, engaging in the fine art of doing nothing is not about putting your dreams behind you and quitting your life; it’s about using the empty gaps that become available to us to stop over-identifying with the past, the future, or other circumstances of our lives, all of which can keep us from the peace and presence that is always near. It’s a call to create a temporary space where we are not required to achieve anything, where we’re not being asked to be anyone ‘special,’ but to simply be. All we are required to do is to go with the flow of the moment, like someone floating down a river. What discoveries we can make during these times!
Have you wondered how you can practice doing nothing? It’s a rather funny and paradoxical question, isn’t it? After all, don’t we do nothing by doing nothing? One would think so… but we have been technologized away from first-hand living, and we have become so reactive and accustomed to always doing something that we have disconnected from our own nature and that of going with the flow. As a result, we don’t know how to find the off button. If you have ever done yoga postures before and have struggled to stay put and mentally still in the last resting pose, then you know what I’m talking about. No wonder yogis say Savasana is the easiest pose to do, but the hardest to master.
Take a look at these 5 suggestions to start practicing doing nothing, even when you have a busy life. You don’t have to do them all at once. Take your time to explore them whenever it feels right for you.
No matter where we are or how busy we are, we can always come back to our center when we allow these silent and empty gaps to open up in our lives instead of resisting and fighting them. Try doing nothing and give your soul a chance to catch up with you.