Some time ago, my then 2-year-old was sitting on the couch, staring off into space. In this blissful moment of silence, I pulled my phone out and started going through my emails, writing the shopping list, and checking my To Do list for what else I needed to get done. And all the while my son just sat, staring out the window, his eyes glazed over slightly. My own eyes kept flicking over to him involuntarily, he just looked so at peace. Eventually his perfect contentment captivated me so much that I put my phone down and looked out the window, too. I watched the wind blowing through the leaves on the cherry blossom tree, and a few autumn-gold ones flew off and fluttered across the yard. My mind started to wander and a sense of peace stole over my busy brain. My toddler, in his infinite toddler-wisdom, was re-teaching me the art of doing nothing.
I used to be queen of it. When I was 16 or so, I religiously spent Saturday afternoons lying on the floor of the dining room, bathed in sunshine from the large glass sliding doors, while the radio played the countdown of the top 40 songs. I didn’t feel any pressure to do anything and I certainly didn’t feel guilty about doing nothing. It was time to just be. But as I grew up, I slowly grew into the culture of compulsive busyness, where time spent chilling out without a screen in front of my face or a podcast in my ears is considered lazy. This only heightened after becoming a mother. I often felt/feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day for everything I have to, and want to, do. But, when I think about it, I can think of many instances when I’ve totally spaced out – while reading in bed at night, while supposedly watching Netflix, while watching my son play, even while reading aloud to him. At work, too, my fingers have paused, poised on my keyboard, while my gaze has focused somewhere beyond the computer screen… But every time I realized my mind was wandering, I’d consciously wrench my attention back to what I was doing. I think this was a mistake, though. I actually think my brain was on to something. Something my toddler does quite happily and naturally.
I looked into a bit and it turns out, doing nothing is incredibly beneficial for health and wellbeing. It helps to curb stress, prevent burnout and reduce anxiety. And psychological wellbeing also has a tremendous impact on our physical health – improving immune response, enhancing resistance to disease, etc. Not sold yet? It’s even been shown that taking the time to just be increases our ability to solve problems, enhances innovation and boosts creativity. Yes, it’s basically magic. But going from constantly doing stuff to doing nothing can be a real challenge. Not just getting over the guilt of leaving dirty dishes in the sink while you stare out the window, but also because, for some people, there’s a real fear of being alone with their thoughts. The idea of sitting for an hour by yourself with no distractions can be frightening.
I certainly don’t have all the answers but for my part, I think everyone probably needs to find their own way. It might be doing an automatic sort of task, like knitting, where the needles are just click clacking away but your mind is wandering elsewhere. Or perhaps it’s listening to some music without multi-tasking. Or just spacing out at your computer screen like me. Maybe it’s for a few moments, a few minutes, or a whole afternoon like I would do when I was 16. Whatever it is and however you come to it, the real art is letting it happen. It’s not pulling your mind back to the present, back to worries about the future, and your never-ending To Do list, it’s letting go.
Perhaps one day, we might even be pros like my toddler, and sit contentedly on the couch, staring out the window, feeling no guilt, no shame. Just being. And I think we’ll probably be happier and healthier for it.