In our culture, it is important to always do something useful. We have become afraid to be alone with our thoughts and social media has made it easier than ever to never be idle. Maybe you can relate to feeling guilty if your mind isn’t occupied with anything. For me, it feels uneasy, as if I am missing out on something. But by quickly turning to our phones to fill the void in our mind, we rob ourselves of something very valuable. We rob ourselves from the opportunity to let the mind wander. This is not just laziness. Doing nothing lets us empty our cups so that we can return to the participation of life with room in our minds. Neuroscientists think this ‘doing nothing’ also helps us to become more creative and improves our problem-solving skills.
As life grabs our hands and pulls them towards all different corners of the world, it is our job to retreat them back periodically and become centered again. Yet in a world where there are so many hand grabbers, this job has become a skillful art that requires practice, dedication, and patience. It is an art about saying no to the expectations, temptations, and distractions around us and just letting life be for a bit. We can practice the art of doing nothing with a few simple steps until we have become masters of ‘il dolce far niente’.
1. Make time
The first step is of course to schedule plenty of time for your doing nothing. It is important to give yourself enough time for the sweetness of ‘far niente’ to take full effect. This means that 30 minutes in between rushing to appointments won’t do. It also means that an hour before bed will probably not do either. You can still use this time to practice some mindfulness, stare into nothingness or take a hot bath. But for some serious ‘far niente’ you should give yourself at least 3-4 hours to ensure that doing nothing doesn’t turn into another item to tick off on your busy to-do list. A Sunday afternoon would work perfectly for your nothingness adventure.
2. Schedule absolutely nothing
During your doing nothingness, switch of all electronics and disconnect from the outside world. Do not schedule any tasks during your time of doing nothing. That means no cooking, cleaning or blogging. But it also means saying no to any relaxing ‘tasks’, such as meditation, yoga or reading. For many of us these mindfulness practices can feel like chores we need to accomplish, so do not commit to doing anything relaxing during ‘far niente’. Instead simply sit in a chair for a while and see what comes up.
3. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable
Doing nothing is likely going to be uncomfortable at first. You will want to do something useful or something distracting almost straight away. Resist the urge to do anything at all (including listening to music or taking a bath) for at least the first 30 minutes. Just sit there and let your thoughts pass by. Do not try to turn this into a meditation exercise either, but instead let your mind wander where it wants to. If you are struggling too much with just sitting with your thoughts, it is also fine to stare out of the window for a while. Initially, the thoughts might be hectic, but as time passes they will slow down and take a certain direction. Once you feel settled (again, you should sit for at least 30 minutes), you can start filling up the rest of ‘far niente’ time with some slow activities.
4. Get inspired
Once you have sat for a while, you can get a pen and paper and start writing down your thoughts. Don’t try to make the writing structured, but instead just write down what comes up. Then you can do some slow activities, such as stretching or moving your body to music. The movements again should not be following any rules (or turn into a strict asana yoga practice). Just move your body freely. Alternatively, you could simply listen to some soothing music, take a hot bath, talk to your partner or do something creative, such as painting or knitting. Remember that the activities should feel inspiring or soothing and not like a chore. The most important thing is to not consume any information, so reading, watching telly or engaging on social media doesn’t count as ‘far niente’.
Having a 4-step program for doing nothing might seem excessive, but in a world that thrives on busyness I know for myself that structuring my ‘far niente’ keeps me from getting distracted or bored. Over time the practice will feel more natural. Then, you can truly feel the sweetness of doing nothing running through your veins.