Doing Nothing

A spiritual discipline

Experiencing a case of severe burnout sent me walking through series of steps that are forming a new way of life for me. One of the steps that I quickly learned was how to do nothing. When it comes to doing nothing, questions arise. What does doing nothing actually look like? How do we do nothing? The act of doing nothing will express itself differently for different people. It is a process of experimentation to learn what it looks like for you.

To enter into my own practice of doing nothing, it was helpful to articulate two things. First, why I was trying to do nothing in the first place. Second, what a practice of doing nothing could look like for me. It wasn’t so much finding out what “should be” as what “could be” – and that has made a world of difference. I tend toward perfectionism, and this kind of experimentation and practice is the opposite of that. The practice of doing nothing is wisdom, not a thing to accomplish, or be a hero at. So, the two halves of this story that helped stabilized my life are these: The discovery of why I needed to do nothing, and the practical vision of what doing nothing could look like. I share both here in the hopes that it might resonate or inspire you or someone you know.

The Why

As a tap dancer, my life is full. There is a continual stream of ideas, people, and physical motion. That’s mental, relational, and physical fullness. There are connections between all the things that cross generations, industries, and artistic practices. I’m almost always encountering something that brings me back to my work. On the other side of the coin, I am tasked with filling my life. In order to fuel my creativity, I immerse myself in books, movies, and music. They are all study material towards my artistic work. Writing and speaking have me cultivating words – many more than is probably needed in a day. Dancing and choreography task me with discovering new kinds of movement, sounds, and rhythms. Not only is my life full, I continue to fill it!

You can begin to see how these two sides need practices of opposition to provide balance. Doing nothing allows for a pause from the experience of fullness. Doing nothing also interrupts the habit of making. It helps me remember that the world will continue even if I don’t make something.

What doing nothing looks like?

I was introduced to the ideas of solitude (pausing from the fullness of life), and silence (the interruption of my creative habit) by listening to Dallas Willard. These practices, considered spiritual disciplines by many, have become real wisdom for me. They constitute doing nothing, with no one. This is what they look like in real life for me:

  • Finding a place to be that is not related to home, work, or play. It is my place of solitude. I’ve found a lovely, secluded spot by a river. It takes about 15min to walk to the spot. The walk functions as a kind of transitioning time. I move slowly from the fullness of life to the sanctuary of solitude.

  • Going there regularly – once a week has been a good average frequency for me. The regularity of the practice helps begin to match the regularity of the rest of my life.

  • Staying there longer than I think is necessary. I began with 3hr blocks. I’ve since averaged about 90min.

  • Finding different positions while doing nothing. I sit, I stand, I walk around in a circle. I will dip my feet in the water of the river. I will lay down and let myself sleep if that comes naturally.

  • Leave my phone somewhere else. I leave my phone in my car. I don’t even want the temptation of it. The people who need to know where I am, know that I’m at the river. Everything can wait 90 minutes.

  • Take what I might want to engage with. I have a journal, pen, bible, and maybe one other book.

  • I don’t have to do anything. Maybe I’ll journal. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll read a little. Maybe I won’t. I’ve even caught myself building cairns from the river rocks – a spontaneous activity. No activity is necessary, planned, or regimented.

  • Doing nothing for me means not having a goal for the time. Rather, engaging in a time of presence with myself and my God.

Have you ever just spent time with someone? Have you experienced being able to do nothing with them? Even desiring to do nothing with them. In my own practice of doing nothing I have slowly begun to enjoy my own company – to enjoy the company of God. Doing nothing gives me a chance to experience all of who I am, with God. It’s not always pretty – I don’t get to hide behind any activity or task – but it is real and honest and true. The experience of doing nothing grounds me. It shows me what is real in that moment. It reminds me that I can be honest (I don’t have to hide, or lie, to survive). It encourages me to seek the truth.

As awkward as it was to begin, this practice has been the greatest gift.