Lately I have been hard at work practicing doing nothing. It has taken a lot of effort! For years I struggled against a state I loaded with judgement and called ‘slothfulness’. I felt ashamed of my sleep-ins, my movie watching, my times of complete non-productivity.
The story I had internalized from my culture and upbringing was that ACTIVE is better. I was acting with the belief that constant hard work will be rewarded, that I am a better and more worthy person when I am in the mode of doing, achieving, and producing. Laziness is a cardinal sin!
So I drank coffee. I drank red-bull, I ate sugar, I spent hours half-paying attention to online articles in an attempt to be achieving when my body said ‘lets just have a down-day’. I got depressed and I felt crappy. I tried to to solve all of my problems intellectually, believing I could think my way through whatever block I was experiencing. It would work a little bit. I’d manage to get something together, running on caffeine induced adrenaline I would gain a solid 40 minutes of edge and inspiration. But I knew that something wasn’t right.
I started seeking help. The acupuncturist said “you are depleted, you need to rest and recover.” The councillor said ‘seems like you need to let go of solving and just be with these feelings, put your feet up and let yourself float down the river for a bit.” The astrologer said “this is a time of re-forming, of being in the void for you, not a time for action.” The Zero Balancer said “let go of the need to understand, just feel how good it feels to feel good.”
The next time I felt full of slowness, nothing made any sense, and could find no motivation inside to propel me to action… I went with it. I stayed in my room and day-dreamed. I read novels and watched Mad Men (an entire season). I drank lots of herbal tea, and stayed in my flannel pajamas all day long.
Oh the guilt! My internal critic was indignant. “This is self-indulgent! Dwelling on your small problems, letting down your family! You should be creating world peace! You should be hand sewing all of your own clothes! You should be feeding my community! You should be achieving something grand and being a contributing member of society!” And still I rolled with it. I told people I was sick, and in a sense I was. And just as with a cold, when I cared for myself and followed my body’s signals, some healing below the level of my conscious understanding took place.
After several days of hibernating, something shifted for me and I felt a surge of motivation. Clarity for a yoga workshop sprang into my mind, fully formed. I left my den, propelled by an inner sense of excitement and readiness instead of my usual outward pressure towards achievement. Instead of my usual “I should…”, I felt “I want to!!!”
Sometimes we need to rest and trust. But then again, There are times we need to step-it-up and push through with action! How can I learn to tell the difference?
On my yoga mat I face this same question. How do I know when am I reaching a discomfort in my body that means ‘danger, too much, please ease up!’ And when is the sensation signaling ‘New territory! Its time to step out of my comfort zone and embrace change and growth!’
I am slowly learning how to feel the difference is between time to rest and time to push. The thing is – part of me has always known, I just had to quiet all the extraneous noise inside my head long enough to hear it! I wish I could give you a formulae to know the difference in yourself, but I think we each have to find it through our own process.
It turns out, my body has a rhythm all of its own! This rhythm includes a need for sleep, for play, for work, for concentration and for complete nothing sometimes. This rhythm doesn’t necessarily coincide with a standard work-week, or with the expectations of my community. It doesn’t necessarily follow a clock or calendar at all. But when I stop fighting these needs and listen to my natural rhythm, everything works better.
Action in Inaction
When I was living at the Sivananda Ashram in India, the most memorable lecture I received from the swami’s there was titled “Action in inaction, inaction in action”. In fact most of the lecture consisted of the smiling man in orange robes repeating this sentence over and over again as people asked increasingly frustrated questions. Although he said very little at the time, I continue to think about these words and the meaning he wanted us to take from them.
I need to address change without trying to MAKE change happen. I need to allow the change without disengaging with the process because of fear. I need to stay attentive and in some way ‘active’ in the process of letting go and allowing. This may sound like a contradiction at first – but as I practice it, the challenge reveals itself.This active non-doing, this conscious rest, this attention without pushing, is in fact the key ingredient in the process of transformation and healing change!
In book “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible” Charles Eisenstein writes about the place when we are ‘between stories’ in our lives. There is a place of unknown when we are transitioning from a story that no longer serves us but don’t yet know the new story we are moving in to! There is a sacred pause here, as the old breaks down and the new begins to form. It can be experienced as depression, as lack of direction, as fear, as being in the void. We can struggle like hell not to be in this space… or we can trust it as a phase we need to go through. Who knows what new clarity may lay on the other side?
Inaction in Action
This year I had the unique experience of observing Yom Kippur (new year) in Israel. The whole nation participated in a sacred day of doing nothing. I was staying in Tel Aviv in an eco-community-center. Many of us were fasting to give our digestive systems a time of rest as well. As the day began, I felt my usual guilt for lying in bed until late morning. Then I discovered that every room in the house was filled with different forms of… rest. A meditation room, a reading room, a gentle yoga practice, a pile of sleeping people. There was an easy flow from one zone to the next. When conversation happened, it was slow and philosophical with long restful contemplative pauses. It was a powerful experience to have a culturally sanctioned time of Inaction, and I felt renewed for whatever was to come next.
But what can be done on an individual level? How can I change my culturally inherited attitude of doing and achieving being so important? How can I develop sensitivity to know when to hold ‘em or when to fold ‘em? I’d love to hear what you find that works for you in your own life. I hesitate to share what i have come to myself – I notice that often when we follow what has been successful for someone else rather than our own internal guidance, we follow by wrote or by rules – which brings in the very quality of ‘should’ and ‘achievement’ that we need to move past!
I can hear some of my busy friends, especially parents of young children saying ‘yeah well, great for you! But some of us are lucky if we get to pee by ourselves, I can’t even imagine the luxury of a day in bed.’ OK I hear you! There are certainly times for all of us when the kind of time-out I’ve been describing is not possible. So what then? Maybe even in the midst of doing what needs to be done, there is the possibility of letting yourself off the hook for a while. Maybe its ok to not be amazing, or productive, or even happy. Maybe while you still go to work, or feed your baby, you can feel a pause as your energy turns inwards. Instead of being down on yourself during this time and struggling to find your way out, know that this is an important part of change.
Let me know how it works!