In the past few months, I've had a few different incidents with myself that made me realize my unhealthy tendency to push productivity.
The first was last week when, not feeling so well, I chose a night to just relax. After reading every possible news source online, and then feeling slightly nauseated by the glow of my computer screen, I turned off my computer and sat on my couch. I don't have a TV, I didn't feel like talking to anyone, and I didn't feel like reading the stack of books that had accumulated on my bookshelf. I had nothing to do. While this should have added to my desired state of relaxation, it had the opposite effect.
In the space of nothing to do, I frantically struggled to find something "productive" to accomplish, even categorizing productivity as emailing someone or enhancing my spiritual knowledge through reading. But I didn't want to do any of it, and instead of embracing this feeling, I felt guilty and frightened by my realization that I was having a hard time just "being."
The story ends with me regressing into a twelve year old child and calling my mother to vent that "I was bored." When my mom recommended I meditate, I whined "I already did that today" (in the three minutes that it took for my coffeemaker to make coffee). She then recommended, "I just sit and relax." (whatever that means). Obviously unconcerned by my state of doing nothing, I hung up frustrated and started staring at my bookshelf.
The second incident was over holiday break. I had an hour to spare as I waited for my sister to come out of a yoga class. While I sat in the car with a book, my thoughts kept wandering to all of the other things I could be doing. Realizing that my inherent to-do lister self was peeking out its head, I decided that I would force myself to just sit for that hour. Before three minutes had passed, I had already whipped out my iphone. The next forty five minutes were laughable as I ran through the cycle of checking my phone, saying "no" to myself, putting the iphone down, sitting in silence, and then checking my phone again. This persisted for the next fifty minutes.
Someone once told me that when we take out our iphone in an off-moment, whether it be as we wait for somebody or in a lull of a conversation, we should ask ourselves, "What am I escaping from right now?" More often than not, when I ask myself this question, I realize that I'm escaping from the present moment, yearning for distraction amidst the quietness of simply being here.
We have become so information hungry and such productivity pushers, that we have lost the art of doing nothing. Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of "Wherever You Go, There you Are" reminds us that the "the joy of non-doing is that nothing else needs to happen for this moment to be complete." He then recalls Thoreau, who stated (free of guilt, I'm sure), "it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished."
On days I struggle with the discomfort of non-doing, I can't help but think of an elderly man on his porch who sits for hours at a time as he watches the neighbors walk by or a group of women in a small village of Africa who sit outside their huts and stare out into the world. Do these people have a secret to share? As they sit in silence and gaze at the world without pushing for productivity, what have they found?
If I constantly pursue information and multi-tasking, I will continue to have a harder time quieting my mind and appreciating the art of doing nothing. At this point, I need to practice carving out time to do nothing particularly productive, and then practice feeling completely at ease with these moments. And hopefully, soon enough, when someone asks me what I did on a given night, I can learn to say "I didn't do anything" with a smile and an appreciation for those moments of non-doing.
PS: There is a website "Do nothing for two minutes" http://www.donothingfor2minutes.com/ that encourages us to just sit for two minutes and listen to the sound of the waves. If you press your keyboard at any time during those two minutes, the clock restarts. It's a great way to experiment with the act of "non-doing."