People who know me well have had to listen to my emphatic discourse on the value of ‘doing nothing’ for a long time now, and not just during an occasional drowsy summer afternoon. I’ve claimed for many years that doing nothing is a vital activity in our busy lives, not only for children but for all of us, and especially for writers.
‘Nothing time’ does not mean leisure – like zoning out with a movie or even reading a book. It means daydreaming. It means looking out the window. It even means allowing yourself to be bored. It means letting go of all those heady shoulds and musts and have-tos, and letting sunshine spill over your shoulders, relaxing them. It means tuning out people and turning off electronics. For writers, it means pausing in the relentless chase after the ideal sentence or word, and instead letting them come to you.
Doing nothing is when you calm down, open yourself, find a place that is so quiet you become one with the world, without trying. There’s no effort involved, just as there’s no effort in the central activity of breathing.
Remember this from Winnie the Pooh?
“What I like doing best is Nothing,” said Christopher Robin.
“How do you do Nothing?” asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time.
“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, nothing,’ and then you go and do it.”
“Oh, I see,” said Pooh.
“This is a nothing sort of thing that we’re doing now.”
“Oh, I see,” said Pooh again.
“It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
“Oh!” said Pooh.
I had little or no validation for caring so deeply about ‘doing nothing’ (except from A.A. Milne), and I know that many people thought I was simply trying to justify being lazy. Well, for those of you who doubted me, pick up this issue of Scientific American, in which neuroscientists claim that when the mind is at rest, it is actually more active (in a good way!) than when it is engaged in a task.
“Many neuroscientists have long assumed that much of the neural activity inside your head when at rest matches your subdued, somnolent mood. In this view, the activity in the resting brain represents nothing more than random noise, akin to the snowy pattern on the television screen when a station is not broadcasting. But recent analysis produced by neuroimaging technologies has revealed something quite remarkable: a great deal of meaningful activity is occurring in the brain when a person is sitting back and doing nothing at all.
“It turns out that when your mind is at rest – when you are daydreaming quietly in a chair, say, [or] asleep in a bed or anesthetized for surgery – dispersed brain areas are chattering away to one another. And the energy consumed by this ever active messaging, known as the brain’s default mode, is about 20 times that used by the brain when it responds consciously to an outside stimulus. Indeed, most things we do consciously, be it sitting down to eat dinner or making a speech, mark a departure from the baseline activity of the brain default mode.”. … Marcus E. Raichle, “The Brain’s Dark Energy,” Scientific American, March 2010, pp. 44-47.
So, parents of babies, put away all those crazy toys that are supposed to stimulate your baby’s mind – gazing out the window or into your loving eyes is much more productive! And parents of teens: make sure your kids’ downtime is validated. And teachers – lighten up on all that homework. And, sure, chores have to be done, but shift your priorities.
Doing nothing is just as important as washing the dishes.
Fun Writing Practice – Do Nothing
That’s it. That’s your writing practice. Do nothing.
[An earlier version of this WriteSpa was previously published in Spring 2010.]