Is Nothing Sacred? Thoughts on Leisure and ‘Doing Nothing’

Sipping teaWhat images and thoughts come to mind when you hear the word leisure?

Many people automatically associate leisure with what people do in their ‘spare’ or ‘free’ time (i.e., time spent away from paid jobs), or with pursuits such as entertainment, vacations, or sports.

I think we need to delve deeper when we think about the meaning of leisure.

What happens to leisure when we live in a culture where nearly everyone is expected to have paid jobs and work long hours just to earn their keep?  How much of our time is truly free in a culture like this?

Leisure gets an unfair bad rap, if you ask me.  Too often it is dismissed as something less worthy of care and consideration than the useful productive work that needs to get done, or as a kind of guilty pleasure that is only available to a privileged, rich elite who can afford it.

One source of the problem is the way we think.  We’ve internalised the Protestant work ethic to such a debilitating degree that leisure has become trivialised and morally suspect.  We worship effort and busy-ness instead.  Workaholism is worn as a badge of pride and moral superiority.  We overvalue activity, exertion, and even drudgery, while simultaneously undervaluing the ability to be receptive and allow things to happen as they will.  This obsession with work crowds out time to reflect and contemplate alternative ways of life.

I reject the idea that my worth as a human being – or anyone’s, for that matter – should be measured by willingness to work hard at a paid job.  I don’t want to live in a world where I’m only allowed to feel like a worthwhile person if I am expending huge effort to accomplish things on an economically approved timetable.  I want to live in a world where I can use my gifts to do high quality work of the heart and spirit, while trusting that my support will come through using those gifts in accordance with divine Will to provide what others want and need.  I want everyone else to have the same option.

While it is no doubt true that some things can’t be accomplished without a considerable expenditure of effort, it has also been my experience that there is a way of working – a beautiful, playful, even awe-inspiring way – that is only available to those who can set aside the cultural brainwashing of the work ethic long enough to allow themselves the pleasure of relaxing deeply into the experience of true leisure.  The kind of work that is done from this place of inner balance cannot be rushed; it takes the time it takes, and that’s that.  Most artists understand this intuitively.

Paradoxcially, artists in particular are sometimes perceived by onlookers as ‘doing nothing’ at precisely the times when their creative selves are in fact most deeply engaged and they are in a state of flow.  As a writer, I have spent years passively writing an essay or book chapter – doing the invisible labour of pondering, digesting, and researching the ideas I want to present – before I get to the visible labour of actively writing it.  As the process unfolds, there are often times where I’m enjoying a leisure activity such as lounging around or reading a book, and it may appear that I’m just goofing off at those times.  All stages of the process are essential in producing a finished piece of good quality writing, yet only the final stage is likely to be perceived by an outsider as real work.

Yet leisure is the ground from which the best work so often emerges, and the soil through which creativity bears some of its most delicious, ripe fruit.  In this sense, to be at leisure is to be very actively engaged indeed.  Lounging around can be a purposeless way of being purposeful – a way of allowing my unconscious mind freedom to roam and generate creative insights.  When I allow myself to be fully at leisure in this way – something that is actually quite a bit more difficult than it sounds – I notice that my writing flows from a deeper place.  It is a place that affirms joy, pleasure, mystery, and wonder.

Flashes of creative insight are gifts.  If I refuse to open myself to these gifts – if I neglect to make room for them because I am mired in emotional conflicts or unexamined work ethic beliefs that prevent me from doing nothing and being fully at leisure – I am being cut off from a deep source of wisdom.

I speak out in praise of leisure because I believe we need a lot more of it – and we need it for its own sake, not just because it can be a path toward better quality work.  I contend that there is an oft-overlooked connection between leisure and right relationship to the divine.

Genuine leisure, in the deepest sense, is a condition of meditative attunement and openness of the soul.

It is a way of being silent – and a way of comporting oneself in the world – that facilitates and strengthens connections with divine forces.  It is an attitude of active receptivity, a presence of mind, and an affirmation of mystery.  It contains a dimension that Charles Eisenstein, in his brilliant book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition, aptly calls “the experience of the abundance of time.”

Taking a break from work, in and of itself, would not necessarily qualify as leisure, since a break is something that is usually justified only by virtue of the fact that it readies a worker to take up effortful work again.

Being “off the clock” of a paid job, in and of itself, is not necessarily leisure either.  Much of an employee’s time away from the job is spent in commuting, de-stressing and recuperating from work, preparing for the next day of work, and so on.

Laziness, idleness, sloth, boredom, and distraction: none of these are what I mean when I speak of the value of true leisure.  In fact, I would argue that boredom and the constant need for distracting activity or entertainment are both conditions that are born of a chronic lack of leisure: an inability to be still inside.  They are one manifestation of an inability to truly do nothing.

To see this, ask yourself: have you ever allowed yourself to do absolutely nothing?

I’m not asking if you’ve just shirked your responsibilities or called in sick to work so you could play computer games or watch TV.  Just about everyone has done things like that.  I’m asking if you’ve ever genuinely done nothing.  Nothing at all, except fully allowing yourself to sink into languid silence, or perhaps enter a deep state of relaxation and repose.  If you’ve done this in a spirit of inquiry, what happened when you did?

Did you notice that your mind raced?  I sure did.  Every critical, guilt-tripping and worrisome internalised voice I’ve ever absorbed through living in a work-obsessed culture started admonishing me even more stridently than usual: How can you justify frittering away time like this?  You have an endless To-Do list.  Time’s-a-wastin’.  Time is money!  You can’t afford to be unproductive.  You need to be Getting Things Done!

It’s one thing when the opposition to leisure comes from an outside source, such as the media or our social circles.  It’s quite another when we realise that we’ll have to face the conflict we are carrying around within ourselves if we want to learn to be at leisure in a deeper way.  We will have to take on the inner Puritan that admonishes us to be productive and useful.  We will have to unlearn our internalised work ethic bit by bit, the same way we unlearn internalised homophobia, racism, or sexism.  We will have to learn how to get out of our own way.  We will have to learn to do nothing.

We sometimes ask “is nothing sacred?”  My answer to that potentially subversive question is YES!  It is.  ‘Nothing’ is sacred indeed!  To do nothing – to truly do nothing, in the sense I describe – is, in fact, a deeply sacred way of being.  It is when we are doing nothing that our deeper selves have room to emerge freely, and we can give ourselves over to spontaneity, play, discovery, and exploration.

In a culture that worships hard work as a measure of human worth, to advocate a deeper, more respectful approach to leisure is a form of counter-cultural resistance.

Our culture is desperately hungry for this kind of leisure.  Even if we cannot articulate it, so many of us sense that something important is missing, and that we need opportunities to experience leisure as a connection to the divine – as a celebration of life.  We are starving for it.

So let us renew our appreciation for true leisure.  Let us learn how to do nothing, in the deepest sense.

Because ‘nothing’ is sacred.

2 Responses

  1. [...] I am happiest (and most productive, too!) when I have large blocks of unstructured time to do nothing – time in which I don’t have to be anywhere, and there’s nothing in particular I’m supposed [...]

  2. […] for my work ethic, but as someone who has spent many years criticising the Puritan work ethic and talking about how leisure too often gets an unfair bad rap, I don’t think this phrasing is appropriate to describe the way I work.  What I do have is […]

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