On Idleness, or Doing Nothing

One of my favourite things to do is nothing. Doing nothing is what weekends are for. When there’s nothing to do – do it.

It’s actually quite easy. I sometimes sit, but more often recline. I might have a tea or a ginger beer, there may be music. Then I be. Sometimes I’ll deliberately practice mindfulness, attending to my breathing and noting only what is present. More often I just let my mind wander, a frolicking animal taken from the cramped family apartment to the local park, sniffing here and there. It’s an amazing thing to do. While it’s quite easy to do, it’s quite hard to bring oneself to do. I find it really tricky to decide not to watch a video, to read, to cook, to call a friend…to simply sit here a while. Once I get there though it’s profoundly pleasurable. I feel my whole self relaxing, not just my body.

Thoughts dangle through my mind like wayward leaves in a backyard swimming pool. I sit with them, then they go again. It’s undirected, it’s aimless, it isn’t for anything. It’s just to be.

idleness-doing-nothing-relaxing-lying-around

A friend and I do nothing.

Activists face huge pressure to work too hard. There’s always a cause worth supporting, an event worth attending, a person worth helping. Not only that, the whole incentive structure of activism makes it hard to switch off – having an effect is so rewarding that opportunities to make a difference rate more highly than opportunities to laze. In addition, some circles exercise a pernicious peer influence, a tacit expectation that everyone works harder, a sense of critical judgement of those who opt-out.

But it’s not just us: the problem is society-wide. I’m studying an Advanced Diploma of Management with a group of middle-aged managers, and complaints of overwork abound. My illusion was that paid work outside the not-for-profit sector was for the hours 9-5, that such employees enjoyed the luxury of ample spare time. Not so! Requirements are placed that eliminate the option of saying “no”, that deprive employees of free time, that run them off their feet. This often impacts on their family life. It certainly impacts on their ability to idle.

And yet idling is so very important. It’s not just about relaxing, it’s about reflecting, remembering, recollecting, reminiscing. Fundamentally, doing nothing is about being comfortable with oneself.

Somebody doing nothing, idling on rocks with the sea in the background.

Somebody idly doing nothing by the sea.

It can also be a shared experience, something very companionable. Once I had a lover who shared a fantasy with me. In it, we were together, each of us was reading different books. That is all.

I regret that, then, this fantasy was unintelligible to me. Why wouldn’t we be talking? Or doing something together? I couldn’t picture myself contentedly reading while ignoring the much rarer pleasures also available.

How naïve I was! In hindsight, how rich would have been the pleasure of spending hours not in my lover’s embrace, or bed, or in conversation, but in mere company. In companionable idleness.

And, thinking back, these are the times I cherish, whether alone or not: lying on my back and looking dumbly at the night sky, sitting and watching the sun’s rise, lying on a mattress outside on a warm afternoon, dozing silently alongside another.

In this age one of the most precious things we can give is our time and attention. This goes, too, for what we can give ourselves. Taking time for oneself, listening to one’s own thoughts, being idle. It’s the most loving thing you can do for yourself.

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