Often when I sit down to write, nothing comes to mind. And I allow that.
I don’t run off to do something else or even write something else—an email, a work-related task, or anything really. I just sit, focusing on what I am not doing.
If I were to do something other than write when I have writer’s block, I might never write anything. But while focusing on not writing may not always give way to writing, at least the possibility exists—not so if I run off chasing some other idea.
We are a “doer” culture; we are conditioned to think that we must always be doing something. But, doing just anything does not satisfy like doing what we set out to do. Let’s say I sit down to write an essay on yoga, for example, and nothing comes to mind. If instead of sitting with it, I run off to do something else, whatever it may be won’t hit the spot. It is like anticipating a drone on my birthday and getting a suitcase instead (true story).
The same idea can be applied to just about anything. If I go to the forest to jog a 10-miler, but upon arrival don’t feel quite up to it, I know I should not rush off to do something else, but rather just relax where I am and allow myself to focus on not doing what I set out to do. Doing this forces creative thinking and time for myself, minus distractions.
The point is that conditions may not be right for doing any multitude of things, and when they aren’t, we should resist the temptation to run off in an unrelated direction. We may need the space we are given to better prepare ourselves mentally or physically for the task, and we should take the space when it is offered, rather than fill it up.
Substituting one thing for another will never be as good an option as focusing on allowing ourselves to do nothing, consciously and fully aware. Whatever the reason may be for not being able to do something, substituting something else will not address the issue.
Norman Mailer, the great author, once remarked that he will often stare at his typewriter for an hour without plucking a single key, and if nothing comes to mind, he’ll sit longer. My guess is that he probably learned as much from not writing as he did from writing. Because he didn’t allow himself to be lured away to do just anything whenever nothing worthy of a keystroke came to mind, his creativity was stimulated.
When we don’t do what we set out to do, we want results in some form or another, and this causes us to run off doing something completely unrelated when doing nothing is at least related. Our society has conditioned us to want results and to identify with them. But, other cultures are path-driven, a much wiser way of relating to actions.
Kathmandu, Nepal—where I live—operates this way. The pace here is one of ease, and the Nepalese see goals as agendas and tend to dissolve them into the whole journey. Walking the path doesn’t always mean getting there when we intend to; we may have to lodge along the way. When we are path-driven, everything is okay. If the weather is unfavorable, we rest—better to return another time. We don’t set off in a different direction or retreat.
Not only is not doing what we set out to do a worthwhile skill to learn, but not doing anything when there is nothing to do is even more important. Zhuang Zhou, the only disciple of Lao-Tze and the author of the Tao Te Ching, said: “I don’t know about doing things; I just know about leaving things alone.” And, that, in a nutshell, is the whole of Taoist philosophy.
Sometimes, our minds are not stirred by anything and we don’t know how to just let ourselves be. We instinctively feel we should be doing something, not realizing that it is okay to do nothing. And while it is far more difficult, it is a skill worth developing.
We have a lot of unlearning to do before we can realize the power we have within us to be unmoved by the urge to act for acting’s own sake, and allow our intrinsic contentment to rise of its own accord. It takes practice to get out of our own way, but we have the ability within us—it is only a matter of reclaiming it.
Not doing is not easy, but it’s where the action is…no pun intended.
Author: Richard Josephson
Image: Evan Clark/Unsplash
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Leah Sugerman
Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina