Photo by Demorris Byrd
By Stella Orange
At the last minute, my husband and I recently cancelled a two-week ocean vacation, giving us a whole lot of time at our landlocked house without much planned. My husband was working on a work project; I was determined not to turn on my computer. But other than that, I didn’t have anything in particular I wanted to do. So I decided to do nothing, which was both strange and liberating.
It should be said here that I’m not one of those people who always has a to-do list. There’s something hopelessly organized and productive about to-do lists. I know, I know—organization and productivity are generally thought of as things we should want. But as much as I enjoy the visceral psychic relief of list-making as the next gal, I’m also suspicious. There is something about writing down a list of tasks that takes me in a direction I don’t always want to go.
I don’t always want to be productive, for starters. My instinct is that too often, “being productive” takes me out of being present. Of listening for what is arising in the moment, and being with it as it unfolds. If I already have preconceived notions of what I intend to do, I’m not dancing with what is. I’m on autopilot.
Which is how I found myself at the start of this vacation, deciding that I didn’t really want to do anything. Or, more to the point, what I wanted was to do nothing at all.
When I say “do nothing,” I do not mean the negative space that’s left when you take away doing things. I mean giving myself room to watch, listen, be with, and relate with whatever is showing up.
What showed up was that I was tired, overscheduled, and bedeviled by the idea that I needed to do things to top off my Enoughness.
While it is true that part of my love of doing things is rooted in my love of life, it also remains true that part of the reason I do things is because I am still trying to plug an imaginary hole in the wall of my psyche. The more I do, the more Enough I am.
Except that is not how Enoughness works. We are Enough, through grace and from the beginning. The rest is just imaginary hole-plugging.
I didn’t go into this vacation with the intention of mending my imaginary Enoughness hole. It wasn’t a conscious thing. I just thought I was doing nothing. You know, sleeping ten hours at night. Reading a bunch of books. Weeding the garden. Walking the dog without hurry. Washing the dishes without time pressure, or feeling like I needed to rush to get to some more important thing.
But at some point, it occurred to me that I didn’t want to be by the ocean. I didn’t want to be in an exotic country or staying at a luxury hotel. I wanted to be in my own house, doing the things I did when I wasn’t on vacation, with an attentiveness to the sensuality of my life that I didn’t always feel when my days were fuller.
Which was weird, because all this time I thought that oceans are better than being at home. That foreign countries are more interesting than my own city. And that posh hotels are the best escape ever.
Only this time, I wasn’t looking for escape. I was looking to bring the delight and restoration of traveling into everyday life at my own house. My days of doing nothing morphed into doing things again. I fixed things in our house that had been bugging me for months. I repaired torn window screens. Patched holes in the plaster walls. Installed smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Painted our bedroom. Rearranged furniture.
And I did all this imagining myself the proprietor of a world-class hotel.
In the evenings, I took myself out for ice cream. Went to the theater. Rode bikes to the movie theater with my husband under a fat, orange crescent moon. Watched television.
The whole time, I had to keep reminding myself: it’s okay, you’re doing nothing. This is great. Because somehow, I have grown accustomed to always doing something. I’m not sure how that happened. Somehow, in the last twenty years, I adopted the idea that productivity and accomplishment and doing are what counts. But where did I get that idea? And what if it’s not entirely true?
What I learned from doing nothing is that it’s a much-needed counter pose to modern life. On this vacation, I gave myself a break from doing things how I usually do them (“if someone texts me, I text them back immediately”). I let there be space in my days. I asked the question, “Why am I doing this?” and allowed myself the grace to wait until I found an answer that delighted me. I made room for pleasure, for quiet, and for reflection.
There is a deep relaxation and nourishment that comes from doing nothing. I thought I had to go to the beach or get on an airplane to find it. But it turns out that this kind of restoration and replenishment is available wherever we are, when we let go of our plans and give ourselves room to follow our noses.
Stella Orange is a copywriter and co-founder of Las Peregrinas, a business advising and marketing service company. Find out more about her work at www.lasperegrinas.org