Doing Nothing

What exactly do I do all day? Sometimes (often?) I wonder.

Originally I was thinking of calling this post “Taming the Productivity Monster.” That beast has long hounded me, but it’s been particularly tenacious of late. Finding myself without paid work, striving to build up CASE and adjust to new roles with my Sudbury schools, I frequently worry that I’m wasting time, doing (or least accomplishing) nothing.

Perhaps there’s the key: doing versus accomplishing. I’m certainly doing plenty these days. Working approximately twenty hours per week for Clearview and Alpine Valley schools, rehearsing six hours for my choirs (not counting practice time at home), participating in activities at the Austin Zen Center at least ten hours per week, plus working out, reading, and writing, it’s all I can do to find time for CASE, the very reason I gave up full-time Sudbury staffing in the first place.

So I’m definitely busy, yet my activities aren’t currently generating income and often leave me feeling as though I’m not working nearly hard enough.

Is that true, though? When I’m chatting with people, meditating, biking or running, reading articles online or even browsing Facebook, am I necessarily avoiding work? Who can say, when at any moment my meandering may reveal a critical resource or insight. James Bach speaks of “scouting” in his book Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar: roaming about, driven by curiosity, “discovering the existence of interesting things” that may (and often do) prove useful later. In my own career, I’ve cited the value of tapping into life’s “rich randomness.”  As a writer, for example, podcasts and reading I do for fun regularly shape my work.

Thus I’m tempted by the hope that some random, casual conversation will lead to a valuable connection, some funding or paid work or other boost for my dream of making a living doing what I love. At the same time, however, I’m plagued by doubt. Am I goofing off or investing in my career, engaging in all these activities whose true value won’t be clear for some time (if ever)? Am I wandering about lost, or am I exploring my new professional and personal landscape? Am I doing nothing, or exactly what I should?

What’s frustrating is not knowing if it’s even possible to tell the difference.

Given my conditioning, I feel horribly guilty and anxious. Despite my years with Sudbury, despite countless hours of meditation and study, I’m still fighting this battle—even though living off savings and taking time to chart a path were part of the plan. Far from helping, my transitional, volunteering-laden schedule is only piling on the questions. Does spending this afternoon blogging mean I’m working or taking time off? What is time off? Can I afford any? Should I cut back on my non-paying activities and try to balance dream work with a day job (or three)?

Growing up, those of us who were schooled conventionally didn’t have this kind of dilemma. On the contrary, we knew exactly what we had to do and when, plus how well we were doing. Yet I question whether this actually prepares young people for adulthood, where it’s largely up to each of us to decide what to do, when to do it, and whether we’re making adequate progress toward our goals.

It’s not as though sitting at a desk with piles of work means you’re engaged and productive. In schooling terms, think of how often we confuse learning with spending time in classrooms. (Just because they call it math class doesn’t mean you’re learning math.) Far too often, Sudbury students are accused of doing nothing simply because their learning doesn’t fit conventional molds. They play, talk, hang out, and help run the school much more often than they engage in organized academics. But can you be so sure this means that nothing—no learning—is going on?

It might help to distinguish the “nothing” of poorly spent time from a more Zen sort of nothing, honestly meeting reality and recognizing the limits of what we know. In my years with Sudbury, and more recently with my spiritual practice, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for what Zen calls Beginner’s Mind, what in Taoism is referred to as wu wei (“effortless action”). It’s a deeper, intuitive sort of knowing what one ought to be doing at any given time, sensing what action is appropriate without necessarily knowing why.

Sudbury Valley School co-founder Hanna Greenberg once wrote that doing nothing “requires a great deal of energy and discipline.” This certainly resonates with the practice of zazen, sitting meditation while facing a blank wall. (By the way, I highly recommend Hanna’s essay “The Art of Doing Nothing” for its concrete examples of the challenges and benefits of “doing nothing” in a Sudbury context.)

In my view, the only “doing nothing” that’s worth nothing is mindlessness: zoning out, giving in to habit or reflex. I’d be willing to bet a lot more of that goes on in schools that occupy students with adult-sanctioned and -structured activities. Obviously, being busy is no guarantee of productivity. After all, even reading can be busy work if you’re simply killing time (and what horrible terms those are: busy work, killing time). Clearly, this is the sort of nothing to be avoided.

Perhaps it comes down to one’s intent rather than one’s activity. To what extent are you mindful, engaged with whatever activity or material lies before you? It seems to me the best answer to not knowing what to do is confronting that nothingness and, in the process, developing one’s intuition. Yet for someone who, unlike Sudbury students, lost touch with his intuition growing up, this is nothing if not challenging.



Filed under Sudbury, Zen

4 responses to “Doing Nothing

  1. I read earlier today a wonderful comment by Mark Epstein (Buddhist therapist) that the therapist can withhold judgment because he positions himself equidistant from the id, ego, and superego. Where are you when you are writing your blog? Where else could you be?

    • Interesting question, Kim. I’d say that, when writing, I slip into the flow of the words as if swimming or diving. Or to revisit Michelangelo’s analogy of liberating the statue in the block of stone, I span the space between the words on the screen or page and the statue of what they mean, what they’re trying to say.

      (By the way, I read Epstein’s _Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life_ about a year ago.)

  2. Pingback: Cause & Effect | Write Learning

  3. Pingback: Still Doing Nothing | Write Learning

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