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Ali Clarke: The power of doing nothing


How do we break our slavery to endless busyness? Ali Clarke has some ideas.

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When is the last time you did nothing?

And I mean truly nothing.

Not in the way of watching-crap-reality-TV-vegging-out nothing, nor deciding to sleep in one morning even as the thoughts of all the things you SHOULD be doing roil in your head.

I mean, flat out, nowhere else to be, nowhere else you’d want to be, sitting on your backside and doing nothing.

I have to admit, I’m not great at it.

It seems like it takes a lot to switch off these days, and I’m not sure we are better for it.

I managed to escape and go camping with the family and good friends over Easter and we headed just over the border to a place where the river bends back on itself and the gums surround you with impossibly weighted grace.

I’ve always been a beach person, chasing the sand, waves and salt-crusted hair, but recently I have – with help – discovered our river.

Even the clamouring of kids and their demands for more time behind the boat isn’t enough to drown out the silence that comes, sitting on the banks, just before sunset.

And as the boats dock for the night and the sky drips into reds and oranges, the stillness settles and pushes on you, pressing you with comfort and breath.

I don’t know if it’s the water or the trees or even space simplified by designated time away from work, it might even be a combination of all these things, but as much as I might want to romanticise the power of nature, I also can’t help feeling it may be as simple as being out of phone range.

How ridiculous is that?

Clearly, I’m not the first to write about the benefits of being away from these communication devices that seem inexorably attached to our ears, fingers and hips, but there’s an obvious dichotomy here.

From the moment we started evolving via industrialisation that was supposed to release us from the 12-hour shifts on the factory floors, we were sold the notion that technology was going to make our lives easier.

Technology freed us from the menial and physical tasks that could be replaced by robots, machines and computers, so it meant we had more time.

In fact, in the 1950s, scholars used to write about what we would all do with our extra leisure time.

I’ll wait until you stop laughing.

Yes, we had extra time, but very quickly that time was filled up as we were expected and conditioned to do more through the force of acceleration.

It’s little wonder as we all keep pushing ourselves, the idea of just sitting and doing nothing is equated with a lack of ambition, boredom or time-wasting.

You can check out critical theorist Hartmut Rosa if you want more on this, but in layman’s terms, instead of a fax being sent from head office at a pace measured by screeching dot matrix printing, we now can receive hundreds, if not thousands of instructions every day: kids texting us what they need, bosses emailing us the next task and friends on social media pushing the next event, the next opportunity, the next picture-perfect moment and to get it all done, you don’t give yourself time to catch a breath as you need to get through more and more.

‘Breaking News’, ‘Need answer ASAP’ and ‘Urgent’ are hourly headers, and as I sat there surrounded by 200-year-old gums with my feet in the silty sand, it all seemed rather perverse and silly.

The Dutch have a word for doing nothing: Niksen. From what I understand, it’s the idea that doing nothing or at the very least, doing something that is of no use, is actually good for you.

It has to be something with no purpose and will never become productive and, whilst there might be a temptation to lump it in the mindfulness box, it’s actually the opposite of that.

With Niksen you let your mind meander wherever it wants to go rather than drilling down on particular thoughts or actions, and you do it while staring out the window or doing something completely pointless.

I think the big problem our Australian culture has with this, though, is that our word for doing nothing is ‘laziness’.

We have built ourselves a society where vast tranches of success are inextricably linked to this busy habit we’ve created for ourselves as we rush around proving to others, and more tellingly ourselves, that we’re doing ok. (Or even better, we’re doing more than the person next to us.)

Not only that, we haven’t even made it as simple as just being busy … we need to be busy with purpose as even our downtime has to have a reason as we run further, learn a new language or even downward dog ourselves onto Instagram.

It’s little wonder as we all keep pushing ourselves, the idea of just sitting and doing nothing is equated with a lack of ambition, boredom or time-wasting.

My experience over Easter, however, was none of things.

It allowed me time, something that I hear so often that people want more of.

It let me drift and breathe and even with the discomfort no showers and a no bed can bring, it allowed me to rest like I haven’t done in a very long time.

Perhaps we all need to break the cycle by scheduling in our nothingness.

Then, at the very least, we can at least say our diaries look busy.

Ali Clarke presents the breakfast show on Mix 102.3. She is a regular columnist for InDaily.

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