Sometimes it’s best to do nothing

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My grandmother always had an aphorism on the tip of her tongue. I remember when she first uttered what sounded very zen to me in the 1970s: “If I can’t change the situation, I have to change my attitude for my own peace of mind.”

Obviously Grandma was one of the early advocates of “radical acceptance.” I loved how this woman, born in 1907 to Polish immigrants, absorbed the zeitgeist of the Age of Aquarius without all the woo-woo language. But the mantra she repeated most often was this: “Busy people are happy people. Of course Grandma would never have used the word “mantra”.

Maybe keeping busy just keeps us from feeling bad? It has certainly been my own experience. “Sorry, I’m too busy to feel right now!” Still, I’m not sure if it’s really about being happy or not, more about what happens when you live a life in the fast lane, which can be a lack of equanimity (increased anxiety or readiness to anger, for example) or uneasiness.

I also realized that at the height of the pandemic – when many experienced increased isolation, deep polarization and worsening mental health — my discomfort skyrocketed. The pandemic itself was at the heart of it all, but I wondered if the loss of distractions was also to blame. To paraphrase Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.

I remember one of my daily covid walks when the pandemic was at one of its peaks. A neighbor ran up to me (but stayed two meters away) and happily told me that she had just completed 365 consecutive days of meditation on the Ten Percent App. She told me that it changed my life; she slept better, felt more resilient and could handle stress better.

I had meditated in the past and decided to try again, “sitting” with a variety of different teachers offered on various meditation apps. Some were formal in their practice, others quasi-religious, and then there was this irreverent guy who didn’t seem to take it so seriously. I mean, his meditations were almost fun, if that’s possible. And he didn’t call it mediation – preferring to say it’s “doing nothing”.

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The group meets weekly online via YouTube for about half an hour, when Warren, also co-author of the best-selling “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics“, says “we can use the time to doodle, gaze vaguely into space, or meditate.” He promises it’s training in equanimity. Oh good? Do nothing to help me find inner calm?

Warren directs the direct, involving a few hundred people from all over the world, who log in every week. People are sharing their ongoing challenges – from the birth of a baby to the death of a parent – and it was only in a week. (Often 1,000 or more replay the live stream during the week, according to YouTube statistics.

But what happens when you do nothing? A lot, actually, but it takes a bit of work to get there. In the past, I found myself oscillating between being restless, distracted, bored, even irritated. Warren’s YouTube encounter was a different experience. He advises people to keep their expectations low and quit at any time by clicking the “leave” button. Yes. You can leave

Warren isn’t touting greater focus, lower blood pressure, or reduced stress, some of the known benefits of meditation. Instead, he hopes people can “just sit there and…be a human being without compulsively needing to make your situation better.” Or, in other words, “to find true rest in the midst of the hustle and bustle”.

Oliver Burkeman, the author of “four thousand weeksabout making the most of our finite lives in a world of impossible demands, endless distractions, and political madness, wrote that “too much work is counterproductive” and that we confuse effort with efficiency. In one article, he quotes Dutch labor expert Manfred Kets de Vries, who wrote: “[busyness] can be a very protective (sic) defense mechanism to ward off disturbing thoughts and feelings.

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Enter David Vago, associate professor at the Vanderbilt Brain Institute, who does research in neuropsychology and is familiar with Warren’s work and the broader practice of mindful meditation.

Like any good teacher, Vago asked me to think about how I defined my terms, in this case “do nothing”. Then said, “When I ask my 6-year-old son what he’s doing or what he’s thinking and he says ‘nothing’, I often praise him and say, ‘Wow, tell me more about nothing! How is ? “Then Vago gets into a playful debate with his son” about whether doing nothing is actually doing something – and whether you really can never do anything.

Donning his neuroscientist hat, Vago tells me, “Doing nothing” is the passive daydreaming state that many of us know, the default resting state for the mind, which, in terms of brain health , is a good thing. When we passively let our mind wander, he says, it can evolve into content that is useful and adaptive — or self-reflective and maladaptive. Mind wandering, at its best, can be constructive for creativity or purposeful planning. Neuroscientists, he says, refer to this passive daydreaming state of “doing nothing” as the mind’s default resting state. Our brains need this downtime not just to recharge, he says, but to process all the data that floods us, to consolidate memory and reinforce learning. Anything that gets in the way of all this can be detrimental to health.

I’d like more of that, I tell myself.

By the end of the second Warren session I attended, my mind had begun to calm down. Less hectic, that’s for sure. Breathing deeply – in through the nose, out through the mouth – calmed me down. I could tell my heart rate had dropped. I stopped thinking about my to-do list (even what to do for dinner after), my sister’s cancer diagnosis, and the upside down state of the world. And I enjoyed the online community, being with a group of people – not doing anything together.

Over time, I found a new calm or a beginning of equanimity. I’ve come to realize that “doing nothing” isn’t really doing nothing; it’s really about doing nothing usefulwhich helps me to stay rooted in the present and prevents me from jumping into the future (where anxiety awaits us).

I learned that you can’t “do anything” almost anywhere. It helps to have a designated time (like Warren’s weekly meeting), or you can put your schedule on hold (say 15 or 30 minutes a day). I discover that I can “do nothing” while walking, swimming, even doing the dishes or folding the laundry. Leave your device behind. Do your best to turn off your brain. Close your eyes (unless you are in the world). Or, as the tattoo on Warren’s right arm says, “Let go.”

Susan Piver, also a meditation instructor and author of many bookswould have disagreed with my grandmother’s advice that busy people are happy people, having written: “activity is considered a form of laziness”, meaning that we respond instinctively to phone when it rings or reflexively respond to emails when they arrive and don’t prioritize where to put our time and effort.

But I hope grandma would be happy to see me follow some of her advice, including her warning that if I can’t change the situation, I have to change my attitude for my own peace of mind.


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