(HT Illustration: Jayachandran)
(HT Illustration: Jayachandran)

How to reclaim the lost art of doing nothing

In times of chaos, it’s even more important to wipe the slate clean. Here are tips to help you get started, and a primer on why you should.
UPDATED ON JAN 16, 2021 10:14 AM IST

When was the last time you did absolutely nothing? No devices, conversations or chores. Just a spell of daydreaming, sky-gazing, letting your mind wander.

Allowing your mind to empty lowers stress and anxiety, improves concentration, helps stave off burnout. “If successfully achieved, it does wonders. And for children, it can introduce them to the ultimate joy of idleness, something that has been missing from childhoods for at least two decades,” says psychologist Arunima Mukherjee.

Almost every culture has a term for this essential idleness. In Hindi, it’s hawa khaana, literally to eat some air — the idea being that you put everything down and step outside for a few minutes. The Dutch called it niksen, the intentional act of doing nothing — a concept that has entered corporate speak in the Western world, as a way to ease stress and even boost ideation, a common consequence of allowing the mind to wander.

The Italians call it dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. To the Japanese, it’s boketto, the act of gazing vacantly into the distance without thoughts of anything specific.

“Because of the number of distractions in the world today, there is a sense that you should be busy every waking minute. At the very least, you should be scrolling through your social media apps so you know what’s changed since you last checked in,” says Mukherjee. “The fear of missing out is leading to a lack of downtime that makes it even more important to make the space to do nothing.”

This is not a habit you can develop overnight, Mukherjee adds. “It has to be introduced gradually. Doing nothing will likely cause anxiety and restlessness at first, so here are a few steps to help get you started:

* Remember that the aim is to empty your mind and / or return to your internal world. The aim is not ideation or problem-solving. Your first instinct will be to run through your schedule for the day, try to recall whether you checked this or that off your to-dos. Stop and re-focus.

* Sit in a relaxed position, in a quiet space. Focus first on your posture and your breathing.

* Next, concentrate on the sounds in your immediate surroundings. Pick an object — a leaf, a tree trunk, sunlight on a wall — and trace its details.

* To periodically re-clear your mind of internal chatter, take a deep breath, hold it for two seconds, breathe out and repeat as required.

* The aim is to have only random thoughts or direct observations in your mind.

* You’ll know you’re making progress when you reach the point of metacognition, which is the ability to think about your thinking.

“Initially you will find five minutes of this a challenge,” Mukherjee says. “Soon enough you will look forward to these slots.”

Sara Ganguly, 36, a mother and college professor in Kolkata, is currently helping her eight-year-old daughter Toree learn to do nothing.

“We ’80s children grew up watching kites fly or gazing up at the sky in the afternoons. My daughter never had the chance, until the lockdown and pandemic,” Ganguly says. “I want her to have a world of her own, where she can daydream or use her imagination. Sometimes I see her just talking to her dolls or sitting in the balcony and watching passersby. I have noticed that it relaxes her, and she returns to her next class more attentive.”

The earlier children learn to do nothing, the better, Mukherjee says. “Many urban children, if they suddenly face vacant time, are confused about how to spend it.” Having nothing to do shouldn’t be a problem, for children or adults.

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