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 her first saying in the 1970s what seemed very zen to me: “If I can’t change the situation, I have to change my attitude for my own peace of mind.”

Obviously, Grandma was an early advocate of “radical acceptance.” I loved how this woman, born in 1907 to Polish immigrants, took in the Aquarian era zeitgeist 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 being busy just distracts us from feeling bad? That 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, but about what happens when you live a fast-paced life, which could be a lack of equanimity (increased anxiety or a willingness to anger, for example) or a malaise.

I also came to realize that during the depths of the pandemic—when many were experiencing increasing isolation, deeper polarization, and deteriorating mental health—my malaise increased. The pandemic itself was central to this, but I wondered if the loss of distraction was also the cause. To paraphrase Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.

Reminds me of one of my daily covid walks when the pandemic hit one of its peaks. A neighbor ran up to me (but stayed five feet away) and joyfully told me she’d just meditated on the Ten Percent app for 365 consecutive days. She told me it was life-changing; she slept better, felt more resilient and coped better with stress.

I had meditated in the past and decided to try again, “sitting” with a variety of different teachers offered on different meditation apps. Some were formal in their practice, some quasi-religious, and then there was that one irreverent man 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 — rather, he said it was all about “doing nothing.”

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The group meets online for about half an hour each week via YouTube, when Warren, also co-author of the bestselling book “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics,” says, “we can use the time to scribble, stare blankly into space, or meditate.” He promises it is a training in equanimity. Really? Doing nothing will help me find inner peace?

Warren leads the live stream, which is attended by several hundred people from around the world, who check in together weekly. People share their ongoing challenges – from the birth of a baby to the death of a parent – in just one week. (Often, 1,000 or more repeat the live stream during the week, according to YouTube stats.

But what happens if you do nothing? A lot, it turns out, but you have to do some work to get there. In the past, I found myself bouncing back and forth between being nervous, distracted, bored, and even annoyed. Warren’s YouTube meeting was a different experience. He advises people to keep their expectations low and exit at any time by clicking the “exit” button. Yes. you can leave

Warren doesn’t mention increased focus, lower blood pressure, or reduced stress, some of the known benefits of meditation. If anything, he hopes people can “just sit there and … be human without having to compulsively improve your situation.” Or, in other words, “find real peace in the midst of the hustle and bustle”.

Oliver Burkeman, the author of “Four Thousand Weeks,” which is about making the most of our finite lives in a world of impossible demands, relentless distractions and political madness, has written that “too much fuss is counterproductive” and that we confuse effort. with effectiveness. In an article he quotes the Dutch work expert Manfred Kets de Vries, who wrote: “[busyness] can be a very protective defense mechanism (sic) to ward off disturbing thoughts and feelings.”

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Enter David Vago, an associate professor at the Vanderbilt Brain Institute who researches neuropsychology and is familiar with Warren’s work and the larger practice of mindful meditation.

As with any good teacher, Vago asked me to think about how I define my terms, in this case ‘doing nothing’. Then he told me, ‘When I ask my 6-year-old son what he’s doing or thinking and he says ‘nothing’, I often praise him and say, ‘Wow, tell me more about nothing! How is it going?’ Then Vago playfully argues with his son “whether doing nothing is really a thing – and whether you really can ever do nothing.”

Vago puts on his neuroscientist hat and tells me, “Doing nothing” is the passive daydreaming state that many of us are familiar with, the standard resting state for the mind, which in terms of brain health is a good thing. If we let our minds wander passively, he says, it can evolve into content that’s useful and adaptive — or self-reflective and maladaptive. Getting lost can be constructive at best for creativity or focused planning. Neuroscientists, he says, refer to this passive, daydreaming state of “doing nothing” as the standard resting state for the mind. Our brains need this downtime not only to recharge, he says, but also to process all the data we’re inundated with, to consolidate memory and enhance learning. Anything that stands in the way of anything that can be harmful to health.

I want more of that, I think to myself.

Towards the end of the second Warren session I attended, my mind began to settle down. Less nervous, though. Breathing deeply – in through my nose, out through my mouth – calmed me. I could see my heart rate had dropped. I stopped thinking about my to-do list (even what I was going to eat next), my sister’s cancer diagnosis, and the chaotic state of the world. And I enjoyed the online community, being with a group of people – doing nothing together.

Over time I have found a new calm or the beginning of equanimity. I came to realize that ‘doing nothing’ is not really nothing; it’s really about doing nothing usablewhich helps keep me rooted in the present, and prevents me from jumping forward into the future (where worries haunt us).

I’ve learned that you can “do nothing” almost anywhere. It helps to have a set time (like Warren’s weekly meeting), or you can keep an eye on your calendar (15 or 30 minutes a day, for example). I find that I can do “nothing” while walking, swimming, even doing the dishes or folding the laundry. Leave your device. 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 the author of many books, would have disagreed with my grandmother’s advice that busy people are happy people, as they wrote, “busyness is seen as a form of laziness.” meaning we instinctively pick up the phone when it rings or reflexively respond to emails as they come in and don’t prioritize where to put our time and effort.

But I hope Grandma would like me to follow some of her advice, especially her admonition: If I can’t change the situation, I should change my attitude for my own peace of mind.”