How to do nothing

Meditation is hard. I’ve read books, had tapes, taken two classes on meditation. But being able to breathe deeply and not let thinking take over is difficult for me.

My brain just likes to stay busy.

I have practiced meditation sporadically for more than 30 years. But I never managed to make it a daily habit. Habits are hard to acquire and solidify, especially (for me) if they don’t result in some sort of visible product.

In 2014 I was using an app to remind me and track the daily habits I wanted to have. That worked for awhile, since I could check little boxes and I got an instant digital party to applaud my good habit. The app built up a record of how wonderful I was, and I could admire it as a motivational reinforcement.

But after about a year, I got tired of constantly checking in with the app. It felt like a mean old teacher who never stopped assigning homework. And it took time and attention just to track my habits.

I’ve learned one thing, though: Behaviors will only stick if they are something you truly WANT. Doing meditation because you’re “supposed to” or because it’s “good for you” does not hold up as motivation, long-term.

Finally I stumbled on a trick that worked.

On a particularly busy day last winter when I felt overwhelmed, I thought, What I really want is to just do nothing. I looked at the clock, and it was 10 minutes to 3.

I said out loud to the empty room, I shall now do nothing for 10 minutes. And I sat down on the couch and closed my eyes.

I didn’t sleep. I didn’t think. I did nothing for 10 minutes.

That break was soooo relaxing.

It worked because it was what I genuinely wanted. And because I officially gave myself permission to do nothing.

By making the announcement, and time-boxing it, I relieved my brain from its duties completely.

Now I do it all the time.

I keep myself so damn busy that I always want to do nothing for awhile.  And, having acquired this habit, I can see that it actually does accomplish something: It helps me to stay calm and focused. Which I also want.

I always declare the intent out loud first: I shall now do nothing for 10 minutes. Stating intent firmly is important in setting a boundary for my brain.

Sometimes I give myself 15 minutes or (rarely!) 20 minutes. But I can’t get away with just saying I shall now do nothing with no time limit. My work ethic won’t allow it. Having a set time is why my brain acquiesces; otherwise, this non-activity would be cut off at the knees as sheer laziness.

Some days I’m so wound up that it is very hard to stay quiet and do nothing. If my brain starts to agitate, I gently remind it that nothing means nothing. It means no thinking, no worrying, no reviewing mental to-do lists, no solving of problems.

My brain, which seeks efficiency above all, tries to sneak in lower back stretches or Kegels during this time. No, I tell it, this is not exercise time. Stretches are not “nothing”.

When my brain is quiet, my body relaxes and I naturally fall into rhythmic deep breaths.

I am pretty sure this counts as meditation.

But I’m not going to call it that. Because that would be doing something, not doing nothing.

Today’s penny is a 1985, the year that I took my first meditation class, in Seattle.

One thought on “How to do nothing”

  1. Loved this. Thanks. I also hate meditating (I invariably fall asleep) and love just resting my eyes for a few minutes. Very therapeutic!

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