Learning To Do Nothing
Today we enjoyed loads of ocean swimming, deluxe baleadas, laying in the hammock, chatting with adventurers, cold showers and warm cinnamon buns.
“The inner is foundation of the outer
the still is master of the restless
The Sage travels all day
yet never leaves his inner treasure” ~ Lao Tzu
In our culture, we place a high value on being busy. After the weather, sports or celebrity gossip, comparing our busy schedules seems to be a conversation filler. Sure, our high value on work has led to a great deal of productivity, but this mindset has also led to a great deal of psychological and physiological health problems. In the developing world, it is very common to see people sitting around, shooting the breeze, saying hello to everyone who walks by. I’m sure their conversations are still about the weather, sports and celebrity gossip, but I can guarantee they are not comparing their busy schedules and the exhaustive list of things yet to be done.
Keeping busy and then thinking about keeping busy is not only great for productivity, it is also great at distracting us from paying attention to our own thoughts. The Default Mode Network is a process in the brain that is activated when we are not focused on a particular task. If you catch yourself worrying about the future or ruminating about the past, the Default Mode Network is in play. Though worrying about the future and ruminating about the past are not always healthy, it is good to pay attention to these thoughts, to be aware of them, and to work to manage them. Experienced meditators have the ability to turn off the Default Mode Network even when they are not engaged in a task that requires focus. For experienced meditators, being still is not only welcomed, it is sought out.
While Asher slept in the hammock and we crooned out a few tunes on the ukulele, we talked about how we sometimes feel guilty for doing nothing. We realize the irrationality of this emotion yet still have difficulty shaking it. Even the 18th century psychologist William James wrote, “if he does not join the general scramble and pant with the money making street, we deem him spiritless and lacking in ambition.” The cultural milieu of the highly productive industrial revolution still pervades today despite a vastly different society and a significantly elevated standard of living. Backpacking on the cheap allows us to meet people who see an alternative way to experience the world, often outside of normal economic habits. Today we talked with Tyler and Ashley from Vancouver who are on their first backpacking trip and appreciating all it has offered them; from the beaches of Panama to the volcanoes of Nicaragua to the reefs of Honduras saying, “if you are comfortable being uncomfortable then there is a lot to gain.” Or Sage, the Brit who has retired at 24 to live on his sailboat or Jack the Aussie who is beach hopping around the Caribbean. To us these people are the opposite of “spiritless” or “lacking in ambition.”
Yet, even doing nothing is something. We are resting, recharging, reassessing, reconnecting, and renewing. Just as traveling to the far corners of the earth takes time, and effort so does traveling to the dark corners of the mind. When we are busy, we not only give up exploring new geography, we also give up on exploring ourselves. We are taking time on this trip to do as our mothers do and better develop a contemplative practice. A practice of sitting still and doing nothing.