The Practice of Doing Nothing

I can think of just once where I felt bored out of my mind. Boring beyond comprehension in my current life as a hustling New Yorker, the time was a much-needed boot camp in doing nothing.

Bored out of my gourd

visiting the chickens bordomAfter completing a busy four years of college, I went to São Gabriel da Cachoeira in the Brazilian Amazon for five weeks with a vague notion of tropical fruits and sun. After the initial waves of fascination at the tremendous and sudden rain, shrieking alien bugs and the indigenous villages along the Rio Negro, I sank into utter boredom having nothing to do other than attend a daily service at 5:45 AM, teach music class for a couple hours in the afternoon and pick at unappetizing meals under the curious eyes of the indigenous women. I had so little to do that going to visit the chickens in the yard with my one friend and sitting up for an hour to make sure I had digested my malaria pill became significant events in my day.

Doing nothing: my roomI napped a lot and spent a great deal of time mindlessly swinging back and forth in my hammock waiting—waiting for the next thing to happen, waiting to have a chance to go out to the city, waiting to fly out to São Paulo, waiting to go home to Los Angeles. I wavered from trying to quiet my constantly racing mind so that I could appreciate the idyllic environment to feeling anxious that I was doing nothing productive. Having grown accustomed to always running around feeling productive—and at times overwhelmed—I found it very difficult to be still even for a few weeks.

I left the Amazon knowing that the time was good for me—good for my spirit, my character, et cetera—but without a concrete understanding of how it had impacted my life. Mostly I was excited to finally get to a city again with lots of people instead of flesh-eating bugs. It wasn’t until months later that I realized how much my brain had processed without my knowing it.

The effect

The Practice of Doing Nothing
Before the Amazon I was set on applying to doctoral programs in composition. Without having thought about it, the plan just melted away during my break from activity and I discovered that I actually had no interest in pursuing a Ph.D. even though it seemed to be the logical next step.

Had it not been for my break from society, I probably would have just kept going on the path laid out before me, too busy and preoccupied with my schedule to have full access to what I was really thinking and feeling, and unable to assess honestly what I wanted to do. The time in the Amazon acted as a glaring stop sign that made me reconsider my goals and sort out everything crammed in my mind. This happened without conscious effort.

The practice of doing nothing

I haven’t been back to the Amazon, but I still practice a kind of interruption each year where I go home and do nothing but sit around and go for walks. I see few people other than my immediate family members and hardly use my phone or social media.

It took practice, but doing nothing has proved invaluable.

And although I don’t always have the luxury of taking big blocks of time off, I make time daily to do nothing except let my mind wander. I used to feel anxious about looming deadlines while doing nothing, but I’ve since given myself permission to be present in a state of inactivity instead of waiting for something to happen or thinking about what I have to do next. Now I find that I spend this downtime processing, conceptualizing and brainstorming actions vital to my career as a creative professional. I might be making it sound like work but it isn’t really—it is simply spacing out.

I’ve been thinking more about this lately as I follow WNYC’s Bored and Brilliant series and converse with the Tronvig Group staff about various topics including the value of boredom. James has written in praise of boredom a few times on this blog. I obviously agree on the benefits of inactivity and powering down. It took practice, but doing nothing has proved invaluable.

I wouldn’t be doing everything that I’m doing now without having done nothing first.

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Photos by the author

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