Olga Mecking of the New York Times writes The Case for Doing Nothing. Reading it though, it sounds like a solid endorsement for what I do every week during Quaker meeting.
Generally speaking, our culture does not promote sitting still, and that can have wide-reaching consequences for our mental health, well-being, productivity and other areas of our lives. Technology doesn’t make it any easier: The smartphone you carry with you at all hours makes it almost impossible to truly unplug and embrace idleness. And by keeping ourselves busy at all times, we may be losing our ability to sit still because our brains are actually being rewired.
Indeed, the benefits of idleness can be wide-ranging.
Ms. Mann’s research has found that daydreaming — an inevitable effect of idleness — “literally makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas.” For that to happen, though, total idleness is required.
“Let the mind search for its own stimulation,” Ms. Mann said. “That’s when you get the daydreaming and mind wandering, and that’s when you’re more likely to get the creativity.”
There is no way I could look at my smartphone during Quaker Meeting for Worship; I am so terrified it might go off during the quiet, I leave it in the car.
The sort of quiet, doing nothing mode, Mecking advocates seems to work best for me when I do it with others. It may just be the accountability or there is a strange power in group idling, but when I am in Meeting for Worship, I can sit still for up to an hour. When I go it alone? About 10 minutes. Of course I can easily spend multiples of 10 throughout the day as I sit and pause between items on my to-do list as I often do.
Last year physicist and novelist, Alan Lightman, wrote about the importance of being quiet and still. He raises the alarm about how our brains have been altered by the immediate and constant access to data through our various devices. He then outlines steps of what we can do to free up our brains. He makes the case for Why we owe it to ourselves to spend quiet time alone every day.
What can we do? Somehow, we need to create a new habit of mind, as individuals and as a society. We need a mental attitude that values and protects stillness, privacy, solitude, slowness, personal reflection; that honors the inner self; that allows each of us to wander about without schedule within our own minds.
Wilson’s proposal is bold, and I would like to make a similarly bold proposal: that half our waking minds be designated and saved for quiet reflection. Otherwise, we are destroying our inner selves and our creative capacities. Different moments throughout the day can be devoted to contemplation and stillness, free from the external world.
Especially when I am not on the road and have some stability at home, I do two things that are very helpful in recapturing my brain.
- I leave my devices downstairs after dinner and then spend the evening with a book. I tend to fall asleep faster, and when I wake up there is no device by the side of my bed calling me out of my slumber. Instead I just wake up. (I also have a husband who always gets up before me–a human alarm clock.) I might lie in bed a bit and let the daylight awaken me as I think about the day ahead. I might reach for a book and read a bit. I then stumble downstairs (it takes me some effort to wake up) and make coffee. Then I read news, and finally when I am awake, I go to my study and look at emails and the social media streams.
- I take the day off on Sundays. When home, I try to make Sundays a device-free day. I don’t look at email, social media, news, etc. I drive to Quaker meeting, sit in the silence, then spend the rest of the day living like I did before there was all this technology. Sometimes I get painfully bored, then I get an idea to do something–clear out a cupboard, make jam, listen to a Stevie Wonder LP, write a letter, or just sit on the front porch.
What about you? Do you have a way of sitting still and doing nothing? Does it require a special place or conditions?