Richa Vatsala consciously began doing nothing for a few minutes during covid-related lockdowns about two years ago. Managing her marketing and communications consultancy in Gurugram, while helping her son with online classes and finishing housework, at a time when a virus was wreaking havoc outside, was leaving her stressed and exhausted. Those few minutes of forcing herself to not do anything at all helped her stay calm—a practice she continues to follow till date.
“I take some time to sit quietly, usually at night when there are no distractions, and let my mind wander, not documenting my thoughts, but just letting them go,” says Vatsala, 44. She says doing the practice three-four times a week has helped her “find peace”.
The concept of doing nothing has been popular for a while, with health and wellness experts across the world recommending it as a way to manage stress. Research shows even a few minutes of conscious idleness, as it’s often called, can help reduce anxiety, boost creativity and help the body fight common colds. But it can be a confusing concept since it is widely interpreted as something that combines mindfulness, meditation, daydreaming or relaxing activities like getting a massage and walking in nature. Think “simply sitting in a chair or looking out of the window,” says Ruut Veenhoven, a sociologist and professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands who studies happiness in a 2019 article published in Time. Or if that’s too difficult, perhaps allow your mind to wander rather than focusing on the details of an action. “We should have moments of relaxation, and relaxation can be combined with easy, semi-automatic activity, such as knitting. One aspect of the ‘art of living’ is to find out what ways of relaxing fit you best,” adds Prof. Veenhoven. Along with managing stress, he says the practice can help one come up with new ideas.
There is plenty of literature prescribing how to do nothing, but actually doing it can be difficult. Deliberately pausing, even for a few minutes, to stare out of the window, can be a fidgety and uncomfortable experience. Is doing nothing for everyone?
Unpaid work is not doing nothing. Neither is binge watching shows nor aimlessly scrolling through social media. The latter could actually hamper our ability to relax, as the constant stimulation and the need to scroll distracts us from allowing our mind to wander or focus just on being present.
Consciously doing nothing is intended to be a distraction-free time to simply be, providing relaxation from the constant doing.
“The art of doing nothing has existed for several years and is found in different cultures like Italian, Spanish, even Goan. It has been called ‘siesta’ since Portuguese times,” informs Luke Coutinho, integrative and lifestyle medicine expert in Mumbai. “It is a way of deep relaxation and should not be confused with laziness.”
Doing nothing means different things to people. But what unites these varied interpretations, whether staring into space or doing a semi-automatic activity like knitting, is that you are allowing your mind relax and not react to the thoughts that stream through.
Bengaluru-based content consultant Lakshmi Sharath, 48, started practising the art of doing nothing a few years ago after she noticed how increasing work was affecting her health. “My productivity was tied to my self-worth,” she recalls. “My therapist asked, ‘Why did I need to define the day by my productivity? Why couldn’t a day be good if you just sat around, let yourself be and not do anything?’ That hit home for me—the concept of just being.” Now Sharath schedules free time for two hours or so every day to just sit, do gardening, or simply walk outside.
Delhi-based Art of Living instructor Rajika Narain prefers to devote 20 minutes a day to meditation, her interpretation of doing nothing. “Since childhood, there have been gaps of time when I would zone out and if asked what I was thinking, I would say ‘nothing’ and mean it… a ‘nothing’ box devoid of thoughts or emotions,” says Narain. “Later in life, I learnt doing this ‘nothing’ practice consciously in the form of the Sahaj Samadhi meditation. I slip into a deep space effortlessly and come back rejuvenated.”
Meditation and other gateway activities like knitting or walking, however, still appear like doing something, even if for many it is a way of doing nothing.
“For me, doing nothing is just being idle. There’s no element of active thinking or filtering out of thoughts,” says Bengaluru-based branding coach and voiceover artiste Ganesh Vancheeswaran, 43, who gravitated naturally towards taking routine breaks a decade ago, not exceeding 15 minutes a day, to sit and let his mind wander.
But how do you do nothing amid distractions? “At the workplace, doing nothing could be a 2-minute break to connect with your breath. If you have access to the outdoors, then stepping out for a walk, sipping a cup of tea or coffee, listening to music, or just shutting your eyes,” recommends Coutinho.
Vancheeswaran consciously hits pause during a hectic workday to give his mind rest and reorient. “When things are hectic or not going the way I want, I take a few minutes to break out of that mood and step away, and just sit in my chair. Just sit.”
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IS IT FOR EVERYONE?
“It’s not something drastic, but it makes a difference,” insists Vatsala. “It makes you calmer.”
Sharath finds the practice effective in dealing with her anxiety and in clarifying her thoughts. “Doing nothing helps me process my thoughts and prioritise,” she believes. “It made me realise that life is not about getting everything done.”
Other benefits include a boost to creativity. There’s growing scientific evidence that when minds wander, without focusing on anything specific, there is a likelihood of new ideas popping up or you might finally be able to connect dots of a puzzle that might not have been possible through conscious effort.
“It helps me be more creative as I begin seeing patterns that I may not have noticed otherwise, and leads to unconventional thinking,” says Vancheeswaran.
As with any practice, it takes time to observe positive changes. “I didn’t get into it looking for benefits. But ultimately, I reap those benefits,” says Vancheeswaran. Over time, the practice has helped him slow down, become more contemplative about deeper issues, which then translates into action, and given him a better perception of and ability to deal with life.
Traditionally, an idle mind has been perceived negatively, as the devil’s workshop, or dull, lazy or unambitious. So an aversion to doing nothing is unsurprising. But advocates believe these perceptions do not appreciate the actual value or necessity of the practice.
Narain says it is particularly relevant for those who are extremely busy, helping with increased efficiency, focus, relaxation and productivity. “If you run machines non-stop, they will overheat and conk out. Similarly, if you don’t give your system a break to do nothing and recover, it will be stressed and headed for burnout,” she says. As for the practice being called boring by many, Narain asks, “If you find your own company boring, imagine how boring you will be to others?”
Vancheeswaran finds the practice of doing nothing so essential that he even encourages his son, 11, to be idle for some time every day. “Imagine running around busily in the blistering heat all day and then taking a cold shower to cool off. That’s the best analogy I can think of,” he says. “One person doing this reaps benefits. But if many of us did it, imagine what it could do for our cumulative mental and physical health?”
Sharath, however, disagrees that everyone is ready for a cold shower. “Some people enjoy the high from constant productivity, and telling them to go slow is unhelpful,” she says. “While I do recommend doing nothing for everyone, there is a time and place for everything… a time for action, for slowing down and a time to be content.”
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