Doing nothing is not for the weak-willed. It is one of the more difficult things a person can do in her or his life. In a culture that is built upon the premise of distracting ourselves from ourselves, doing nothing is one of the most radical acts. Doing nothing requires the capacity to tolerate going against the ingrained values that everyone in a capitalist culture has accepted to be true. It requires the ability to step outside of the proverbial box. If Kierkegaard was correct when he wrote about how our impulse to escape the present by keeping ourselves busy is our greatest source of unhappiness…..well then it might be of some benefit to us to start finding a way out of that always invisible but always present box.
In the suburban Los Angeles neighborhood where I live, everyone is always hard at work. There are constantly cars, ambulances, trucks, motorcycles, fire engines and cop cars speeding down the road on which I live. Gardeners, tree trimmers, construction workers, city officials, bike riders, joggers and homeowners seem to all be constantly pushing themselves towards some sort of illusive edge. The downtown area of my suburban city is always bustling with frenetic business. Restaurants, stores, cafes and movie theaters are all alive with the rhythmic pounding of social activities. Airplanes continuously fly over my home making their descent into LAX. Plants and trees are the only living creatures that seem to stay still for any length of time around here. I realize it is 2014 and if you want to survive with some degree of domestic comfort you can not act like a plant or a tree (then who would be able to sell you something?), but in those moments where I do not need to be working I still find that it is incredibly difficult to stop, do nothing and feel good about it.
I am building a nothingness box to escape from the cultural box. I read about a particular poet who lived in San Francisco and he was trying to design a nothingness box. He wanted to build a box that could counteract the forces of doing and busyness that were always all around him. Every time he sat down to be still (which I hear is a fundamental thing that a poet needs to be able to do) he felt like he needed to do something. For him it was usually to go to the bar, socialize, look for a lady to have sexual encounters with and get drunk. He found it difficult to write poetry in a city that was always trying to pull him out and his idea was to build a box within which he would be able to feel still enough to write poetry. I am not sure if he ever managed to complete building his nothingness box but I do still have a sentence from one of his notebooks that I wrote down in one of my journals: Boredom … protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be. He wanted to build a box within which he would be able to comfortably wait for something.
This is the most difficult part of taking on the task of doing nothing. Dealing with the boredom and the accompanying need to do something that is soon to arise. Granted the sense of boredom and the fear of missing out will be stronger for someone who lives in a happening city or is addicted to Facebook and Instagram (the great contemporary distractors) then it would be for a person who lives in the countryside and is not interested in social networking. But the main reason everyone fears doing nothing for any length of time is because of the boredom (absence of productivity) that they will eventually feel. But what do we end up losing? I can not help but think of what the writer Cheryl Strayed said: The useless days will add up to something… These things are your becoming. When we do not have useless days, we never really get to become anything. We just end up getting led around.
I like what the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote about boredom. He wrote: Boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness, which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire. This is exactly what boredom can feel like. A state of restlessness where a person finds themselves no longer being pulled by desire. A state of suspended anticipation, waiting for something to happen. This is what makes doing nothing difficult for so many people (including myself). They (I) just cannot tolerate the feeling of being in a state of suspended anticipation. It’s too uncomfortable, too boring. But call it what you will, you can know that you are doing nothing when you feel exactly this way.
Obviously a person who was raised in a capitalist-based culture needs to develop the capacity to be in this state of suspended anticipation. In capitalist-based cultures, the moment a person feels like they are in this suspended state, they will freak out. They will feel like they are not being productive enough and as a result will experience feelings of fear and shame. They will feel like they are missing out on all the fun, which they equate with missing out on their lives. Whether it is to check the phone, read something, work on something, go on-line, watch something, go out somewhere, worry about something- the way we are conditioned in a society that values doing something, is to freak out the moment we feel like we are doing nothing. We feel at risk of losing our value.
Currently I am working on re-wiring my more capitalistic conditioning. I am learning to tolerate the experience of boredom and suspended anticipation. My dog seems much more advanced in being able to tolerate and enjoy the experience of doing nothing than I am- so I use him as my guide. I watch him and study how he rests. I realize the inherent value of being able to be bored. I know that being bored and doing nothing has a plethora of rarely discussed and often ignored benefits. Being bored and doing nothing are just as good for a person as jumping into a pond of healing, mineral water is. It is like taking a bath in a substance that puts a person in direct contact with the experience of life. And it is this substance that generates the experiences we find most desirable in life: happiness, satisfaction, creativity, peace and presence.
I bought a large cardboard box from Home Depot and I lined it with several layers of tin foil. Today I will be applying styrofoam sound boards to make the inside of the box as quiet as possible. I will then put a layer of pillows on the ground and also make sure that there is no way for the light to get in. I will then place my nothingness box in my backyard so it sits on the grass and soaks up the earth’s grounding energy (I may have to put a tarp over it because of the sprinklers that go off every morning). I want to complete the project that the obscure poet may not of ever found a way to finish. It is within this nothingness box that I plan on learning how to be bored. I will spend at least two hours a day inside it doing nothing. I will just sit there and be. I may let my dog come in with me, since he already knows the way. Once I feel like I have been able to stop the compulsions to do something, or to at least comfortably live with the pull towards doing without needing to give into it by checking my phone, cleaning my house, listening to music, watching TV, having sex, socializing, working, going for a drive or checking my email- then I will know that I have started to benefit from doing nothing at all.