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Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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July 27th, 2009

What Works: How Sweet to Do Nothing

Give yourself the gift of time with no goals -- on retreat, on vacation and at home


“Dolce far niente.”
“What does that mean?”
“Oh, it’s a saying we have in Italy: How sweet to do nothing.”
“Well, you’re in America now and they can pull you in for that.”
“Oh, poor Americans.”
— Sophia Loren & Cary Grant — Houseboat (1958)

Our new level of connectedness is a wonderful thing — perhaps the greatest blessing technology has brought us. But it has created a new problem. In this hyper-connected world, time in which you can do nothing is rare.

Despite how highly I value and seek out serenity, I am linked continuously to my workplace and other obligations, so it’s all too easy to feel pressured by the things I could be doing — like Fran in Black Books, cursing under her breath while answering her cell phone as she’s running late for yoga.

The seeds were planted centuries ago with the Puritan work ethic — epitomized by Isaac Watt’s 1700s hymn for children praising the worker bee, which includes the lines:

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

The paradox is that by having no goal, you achieve something wonderful — something potentially transformative. You create space — physical and mental space — to truly decompress and become more open to God’s love.

The industrial age created even more busyness. And since Houseboat was released, we’ve had the Information Age, “greed is good” and “time is money.” And in just the last two decades, the game has changed again with mobile devices and the internet.

So, as we head into the lazy days of summer, I want to put our focus on: doing nothing.

Doing nothing on retreat

Going on retreat has become a part of the spiritual materialism so rampant today. Goal-oriented achievers schedule in time to acquire a skill, or relieve stress. The grown-up equivalent of science camp, these thousand-dollar mini-vacations may offer both useful training and some immediate relief. But the idea of a goal-oriented retreat is an oxymoron. To “retreat” means to “pull back.” Goal-oriented pulling back?

If you want to do an educational weekend workshop, have at it. But don’t confuse that with a true retreat, which offers a much more important spiritual benefit. When you are on retreat just to be present, then everything that’s due when you return — the bills, service commitments, the “need” to research this and buy that — can fall away.

When I stumbled on this journal entry, which I wrote years ago on a retreat, it reminded me of that precious weightlessness you can feel when the problems of your life and world are lifted, even if just for a weekend:

I’m just here to be here. The agenda is to be at sessions, and then pray or meditate or walk the grounds or nap. Nothing needs to be accomplished. So, despite the fact that silence, a slow pace, modest demands on my attention, are normal for me, this still feels different. Because at home, even when I’m doing morning prayers, or devoting a whole day to service, there are many other things waiting to be done, many things that could be done and maybe, just maybe, should be done. Here, that’s gone. It’s like a vacation, but the purpose is not to be free to play in the surf but to be free to hear God. And this reminds me that despite my good setup at home, it’s still easy to make too much noise in my head to hear that quiet voice.

Meditation, vacations and retreats are not about the immediate relief they may offer. In different ways, they are all about doing nothing. The notion that keeping busy is the only way to avoid temptation is also at the root of some Christians’ mistrust of meditation. But the paradox is that by having no goal, you achieve something wonderful — something potentially transformative. You create space — physical and mental space — to truly decompress and become more open to God’s love.

Doing nothing at home

Once, when I worked in my hometown of New York but lived outside the city, I was caught in town in a blizzard and had to stay in a hotel. I remember those few days as a peak moment in my life. Why? Why were those two days so different from the thousands of others in the same place before and since? Because I felt entitled to do nothing productive. Nothing was expected of me, required of me. Despite being just 50 miles from home and on familiar turf, I had no way to attend to things that might need doing. It was as if I was on vacation.

But back when that happened, few people had cell phones and I wasn’t one of them, and though I did have email, I would have needed a desktop computer and a modem to get at it; so if, as with that blizzard, I wasn’t at my home or office, I was unreachable. In a similar situation today, I’d be answering emails, texts, voicemails and Facebook messages on my iPhone, and editing and publishing articles on my iPad anywhere there was a 3G signal.

(Here’s the segment from Black Books
I mention above.)

This doesn’t mean we can’t find freedom from demands. We just have to be more deliberate these days. How do you recreate my blizzard experience in this hyper-connected age? It’s simple, but it’s not easy. It means breaking some patterns and ignoring what people around you might think. It’s hard not to feel guilty doing nothing when the whole society is obsessed with measuring productivity.

Cardinal Egan once said that the greatest gift we give another person is our time, being present to them. Give yourself that gift. Take some time to have no purpose but to be with yourself. And if you have a family, also take time to be with them. My childhood camping trips were so precious partly because we were together with no agenda. (Other than my father’s insane daily mileage goals, that is.)

So, go on that tour of medieval churches in Italy. Go to that workshop. Those are wonderful things. But also consider a real retreat, where the only goal is to be there; the only activities, to pray, walk in the woods, and perhaps listen to talks.

In your daily routine at home, create time to do nothing — sacred time for you and God. Consider the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition — one of the Ten Commandment, no less! — of a real full day of rest, an entire day with no obligations other than your faith practice and being with family.

The sidebar on the right has some suggestions for how to create space to do nothing in your life.

And I want to hear from you! How do you carve out space to do nothing? Has a time when you did nothing enriched your spiritual practice? Share your tips and experiences in comments below.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • Jonathan

    My computer having crashed for a few days was my own sweet to do nothing :) Welcine back Amie..

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Welcome back, Amie! I’m glad you found a little peace, even if it was wedged between family time. And as I said in the column, of my childhood camping trips, time to do nothing WITH family is valuable also.

    And I too have updated my FB status (not sure if I’ve tweeted) from the beach. Nothing to be ashamed of. :-)

  • amiehartnett

    Well I am back…but I sort of *cheated* by updating FB and twitter via my phone ON THE BEACH! But I did not read blogs, play computer games, or comment on social networking sites, so I suppose it was a start as far as weening myself away from electronic media for some peace.

    However, its tough to be *at peace* when you are staying with family so…I only had a few moments of solitude overall, but those moments were GREAT!

  • Christine

    Sometimes I retreat with my animals. I love just sitting on the couch with my rabbit or cat, petting them and/or just holding them. I like to thank and praise God for His gifts to me at that time and just to sit quietly. No “plug-in” visual or audio noises to distract me, just simple quiet,gentle sounds of the house; like the purring of the cat, the breathing of the rabbit, the snoring of the dog, refrigerator in the kitchen or the car passing down the street.

  • Kathy Powell

    I think everyone should go on a retreat! But in full disclosure, I work for a Jesuit Retreat center in Atlanta, so I’m a little biased! Aside from our weekend retreats and our retreats specifically for young adults- check out http://www.ignatiushouse.org- many people just come to our grounds to sit by the river in silence for a few hours. Seek out those pretty parks in your area and go without a plan- just be!

  • cathyf

    When you come back, post here.

    We can then ask, “So how were those D.T.’s?”


  • Jonathan

    @amiehartnett: enjoy 8 days of being connected with yourself…we all need that. God bless!

  • amiehartnett

    @Jonathan: yeah, i am going out of town for 8 days next week and NOT bringing my laptop! However, the people I am staying with have a pc in their house so…I will see how I do. I am hoping for lots of time taking walks and reading (actual paper pages) on the beach.

  • Jonathan

    Where do I begin… how about 30 days of no blackberry service and just 15 minutes of FB? Anyone wants to go on a tech-free diet with me?

  • amiehartnett

    I know its not *doing nothing* but taking time out to read something of interest (ie – not research, etc.) whether a book, magazine…its so incredibly relaxing to me. So, when I actually go somewhere on *vacation* the REAL vacation is having the laptop-and-cell-phone-free quiet space to just sit and read – either in a hotel room, poolside, on a beach, park bench, etc.

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