The Art of Doing Nothing

Whether you’re injured, burned out, recovering from disaster or heartbreak or illness, convalescing is Booooooring. Doing nothing is not something we are used to doing. But doing nothing is an important part of getting back on your feet. It is innate in us to try and FIX the problem, take the ACTION that resolves the issue, just do SOMETHING for crying out loud. Yes, you need to do something, you need to REST! Passive as it is, it is an important activity.

So for you (and to remind me) I am going to introduce some of the myriad ways you too can practice the fine art of doing nothing:

Napping – sleep is great, it recharges your brain juices, tissues heal, it gives you some downtime to unconsciously process whatever you need to (and be it feelings of fragility from unexpected injury to powerlessness at being wiped out by disaster, my friend, you will have some shit to work through!). So give yourself permission to nap all you can. You are healing and will need more rest. PERIOD. 

Too wound up and stressed out to nap? My favourite brain trick is to visualize a nap. I kid you not! Consider it a variation of mediation. Visualization is a simple form of meditation to give your brain something to focus on, just stilling it outright is sometimes too hard. Get yourself comfy, focus on your breathing for a bit, then start to imagine walking to a comfy place (a beach, a cave with hotsprings, a cabin fireplace…) move around this space and then find a place to settle where you can curl up and nap. Really flesh it out in your head, the tint of light, the temperature of the air, all the cosy comfy feelings you can imagine. It may just put you to sleep, and if it doesn’t you’ve spend a goodly amount of time in a meditative state and that is super restful too. Any sort of meditation is your friend right now – sitting meditation, audio tracks, deep breathing… build it into your daily schedule.

An important balance to napping and meditating is moving. But be gentle about it. We grow up in a culture where more is better, but that ain’t always the case. One of the mantra’s for people with CFS is: Exercise won’t make you well, but when you are feeling well you can exercise. The key point for anybody convalescing is your energy is going into healing, this is not the time to push your limits. Feeling tired? A hard-core workout is as likely to run you down worse rather than to make you feel better in the long run. That being said, a body is built to move, and it needs physical activity to be healthy, even if you’re tired. It’s all about scale. Be gentle with yourself.

GO OUTSIDE – this is in allcaps ’cause I can’t stress it enough. Our brains are wired to respond to shades of blues and greens with relaxation. Harness that. Outside is great, when you are convalescing, for no other reason that because it is not inside! Outside is interesting. There are clouds to watch (seriously, when was the last time you slowed down enough to actually watch the movement of the clouds?) leaves rustling, squirrel antics. I once spent a whole summer parked on a lawnchair under a tree watching the path of ants go up and down the trunk. Whether it is bundled up in a blanket, or out for a stroll, get yourself some outside time. Hands down, best nourishment for body and soul.

snail_and_fishOn the topic of watching ants and clouds, lying around is boring, but you have an active mind. No reason you can’t use it while you sit there. There’s lots of little details we miss as we blur through life, here’s your chance to keenly observe. I spend a ridiculous amount of time watching my fishes and such. Snails actually have a set of behaviour patterns, did you know that? Well, I do now. You’re smart, you’re perceptive, put that brain into your surroundings. Watch your cat sleep, notice the grain pattern in the floor boards – think about how/why the tree grew them that way. Listen to music, I mean REALLY listen to music. The good stuff has all sorts of layers you’ve probably never just sat still and tried to unravel. Plus music is evocative, may as well stir some of your emotional world while you’re at it. Being present and keenly observing in the moment gets you out of your head, and chances are with all that stress and frustration and worry, being in your head is not a fun place to be.

Reach out to people. I know it’s hard, we all want to be independent and be the heroes not the invalids, but life is about giving and receiving in equal measure. Think of how great you feel when you get a chance to help somebody out, let other people have that feeling too. It seems like a big thing you ask, because you are tired and sad and overwhelmed, but to someone not fried or broken it is usually a small part of their day. I had to humble myself this week to ask a friend to come over and start some soup for me, I just didn’t have it in me to chop the potatoes and onions and such. From there I could handle it on my own, but that one little bit was more than I could do, and I would have been eating crap all day without that help. My friend had a full and busy day, but to swing by for 20 mins to chop and chat and laugh was no big whoop to her, but meant the world to me. Because resting all the time is lonely and boring, sometimes what we need most is just some company: a phone call, or just a change of scene. People like you, and they like hanging out, it isn’t much you ask for, and something they will enjoy too.

You are worthwhile even when you are strung out and feeble. Just in different ways, and this is a good time to explore some other parts of who you are and what you have to offer. One of the benefits of me being home most of the time and not having a lot of set commitments is I am almost always here when somebody’s got themselves all up in the crazy tree. I may be tired and feeble and feeling unproductive, but I can listen, and for a while I can be attentive to somebody’s problems other than my own. Empathy is a good remedy for self pity, again: giving AND receiving. Life is always a flux, a back and forth.

Our identities are often wrapped up in what we do, being forced to check out of that for a while allows us to see what else we are. ’cause we are a lot of things, and doing nothing is a good way to find out what else we are. Doing nothing is an art, and what you create in your downtime is particular to you. I’ve given you some leads, some places to explore, but what engages you, what nourishes you, what comforts you will be something you get to discover for yourself. And what that reveals about you may surprise you.

Yes, it sucks and isn’t what you’d really like to be doing; but right now, in order to heal, it’s what you need to do. So be patient with yourself and your circumstances (one of the horrors AND blessing of life is that it is always changing). If this is what you need to be doing, then do it well, explore it to the fullest and find out what being excellent to yourself looks like for you. It may actually rub off on the people around you and inspire them to take moments for self nurturing before crisis forces it upon them.

And that is one hell of a gift.

 There are lots of ways to do nothing, and lots of reasons for it. You may also want to read Men Deserve PMS too, and Take an Underpants Day.

5 thoughts on “The Art of Doing Nothing

    1. Happy to be part of the process. Funny how the timing works out, eh? Somebody else thinking the same stuff you’re working on.

      I think there are lots of ways to do nothing; I could write another whole post on bubble baths, book reading, and baking cookies!

      I’d love to hear your (and other people’s) suggestions of your favourite ways to luxuriate in nothingness and recharge.


  1. dear valerie and friends,

    excellent article, i might print it out to pin to my wall somewhere.

    crayons are great because it’s too hard to make great art with them anyway, so the pressure is off. just fill a page with colours you are feeling, or want to feel. write your name in junior high bubble letters. scribble. emoticon.

    i remember waking up in hospital too drugged to move. gross. and seeing the clouds out the window of my bubble room. unexpectedly rendered dependent, indeed. i don’t remember sleeping but i remember waking up again and seeing the change in the clouds. it was a very bad day, it would have been a worse day without those clouds!

    i like being a passenger in a car or on the bus, by a window, when i’m quite depressed. beautiful world scrolling by undemandingly.

    zzzzz jyanti

    ps. v – my cell phone/ text died today (an unpaid bill i have the moola but not the moxie for.)


  2. Wu wei all the way, baby! Action without action. I was reminded of this term in conversation with my eldest. He was speaking about something personal that happened to him this summer and what he was doing with the situation. He was the one who mentioned wu wei.

    When I’m alone my non action action leans towards two very different paths. One is to nap, cozy up with a book, journal or doodle. The other is to dance. My current favourite flavours of dance is belly dance or bachata. It’s something about getting lost in the movement, feeling alive and beautiful, letting go of stuff and becoming the rhythm.

    And I’m with jyanti; there is something magical about clouds. I’ve gained a new perspective with clouds. My partner is a pilot of a very small plane that has a glass canopy. Clouds take on a very different view when you are up close and personal with them, still mysterious and lovely. It’s something about that fluffy whiteness against the blue sky that is comforting and adorable, like a well loved teddy bear. There is an artist whose medium is creating artificial clouds in unlikely places. I’m sorry I forget his name. I’ll see if I can find a website for him. His work is so intimate and evocative.

    Again, kudos to Valerie and her amazing ability to put her thoughts on paper and share them with the world.


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