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Lilian Cheung, D.Sc., R.D.

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The Benefits of Doing Nothing

Posted: 10/08/11 12:56 PM ET

It's Sunday afternoon. You've enjoyed coffee with a loved-one, cleaned the living room, paid a few bills and are surfing the internet. A friend calls, "Hey, what are you up to?" You say, "Nothing much."

These activities may feel like nothing compared to your hectic work-week pace. But they call upon your mind, body and emotions, nonetheless. It's likely that even as you do these "nothing much" activities, you are mentally multitasking -- planning for the week ahead, analyzing last night's social event or daydreaming about a future vacation or your ideal job. Your attention is in demand, and very likely, divided.

What would it feel like to truly do nothing? What benefits could it bring you?

In Buddhism, the ideal person has nowhere to go and nothing to do. To achieve this state of freedom and serenity, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to cultivate aimlessness. In our productivity-obsessed society, we tend to devalue the practice of aimlessness. Often, it's such a low priority that we don't truly rest until we've burned out completely.

But is it really productive to run yourself down until your body and mind are so fatigued they refuse to work?

Without a practice of doing nothing, what quality of attention are you offering? Are you truly present, available to share all of your love, talents, clarity and good humor? When we are truly available, we do our best work, cultivating goodness within ourselves and the world. Dragging yourself along with an empty tank does not serve you, or anyone else, well. You need down time to refuel and refresh.

Keeping this in mind, schedule a time to practice aimlessness. A weekend afternoon may be the perfect opportunity. Since we don't often take time to do nothing, this practice may be difficult at first, but resist planning your lazy day -- simply let it unfold.

You may find yourself enjoying pastimes you'd forgotten were dear to you -- strolling through your neighborhood, playing with a pet, enjoying a bit of fiction, savoring a cup of tea or taking a bath.

There will likely be plenty of distractions calling to you -- tasks that need to get done, people who need your attention. Whenever you start feeling pulled in by obsessive thinking or emotions of guilt and anxiety, return to your breath. Try to notice it moving in and out, without controlling it. Smile to the distractions that arise, and let them float on as easily as they came.

Breathing in, I am doing nothing.
Breathing out, I recognize the value of this practice.

After practicing a few lazy days, you will start to feel a buoyancy return to all the rest of your days. You may feel young in spirit. You may notice more space around your heart. Your ability to focus on the tasks at hand will likely improve, as will the clarity of your thinking. In this clear-minded state, you can make much better use of your time. Your projects and relationships will blossom in the full light of your attention, and they will begin to demand less of your time.

Before you fill this new-found free time up with more hobbies, errands and social occasions, pause. Remember that this efficiency resulted from aimlessness, and plan your next lazy day.

 
 
 

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