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 ā€” 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.