The art of not doing (part 1)

We are so accustomed to thinking that success in life is about achievement – which in turn means doing something with results.

This notion is so ingrained in our lives: we are expected to live towards some goal, ambition, or measure of success – in order to give our lives meaning and a future to look forward to.

We strive to be productive and prolific, we compete with others, and we measure progress with milestones, grades, ROIs, indexes, and so on.

Interestingly, this only seems to be prevalent in human civilisation post-Paleolithic – within the last 10,000 years. Humans before that – before organised systems of food production (agriculture) – lived a nomadic, hunter-gatherer life, content to flow with the ebb of the seasons and live each day as it came.

The industrial revolution, followed by the population explosion in the 20th century further exacerbated the need to be competitively productive.

Then, towards the end of the last century, this paradigm started to shift, at least for some in the Western world.

Erich Fromm was one of the earliest to articulate this. His many works reflect this, in particular, “The Art of Being”, published posthumously in 1993 containing writing from the 1970s when he was working on “To Have or to Be?”. Advocating meditation and the need for self-awareness through honest self-analysis, he draws upon Eastern philosophies and psychoanalysis to address the schism between self and society in modern times.

A plethora of books on “doing nothing” – mostly self-help – have appeared, especially since the 1990s. Most focus on how to de-stress and cope with the anxieties of a competitive profit-driven world which was fast becoming increasingly dystopic with its relentless commercialisation.

“The Art of Doing Nothing: Simple Ways to Make Time for Yourself” (1999) by Veronique Vienne is but one example.

More recently, we have “The Art of Laziness: What Creatives Do When Doing Nothing” (2020) by T M Caulfield.

And:

“The Lost Art of Doing Nothing: How the Dutch Live Well with Niksen” (2021) by Maartje Willems.

Indeed, much has been published about Niksen (and similar concepts) in recent years, suggesting a growing cognisance of the need for self-awareness and a more holistic approach to improve our quality of life.

Is this more of a trend in more affluent or better-educated societies, which according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) are in a better position to focus on self-actualisation?

Personally, I feel that oversimplifies things. I sense an overarching paradigm shift – both at the individual and collective levels – in the notion of what it means to live a meaningful existence.

At the individual level, there seems to be an increasing awareness for the need to look within – rather than without – at what it means to be alive. Much of what has been written about “doing nothing” focuses on:

  • stopping activity and relaxing the body and mind
  • appreciating what is already in front of us
  • doing things without any goals in mind, such as semi-automatic activities
  • not worrying about the passing of time; living in the moment

This last point is closer to what I mean by “not doing”, for doing implies an activity over a period of time, with an intention, purpose, or outcome in mind.

“Not doing” is about being in a timeless state. Yes, in part, it is about living in the present; but more than that, it is about transcending time.

While Fromm’s concept of being focuses on self-awareness, my emphasis on “not doing” is about transcending the self.

But what does transcending mean?

To transcend is to exist outside of the limitations imposed by our perception of time.

It is also to be able to perceive existence as something greater than the self. All of life – and consciousness – in the universe is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

The problem for us is that we have grown so accustomed to relying on our senses to perceive and understand our selves and the world around us. And this has served us well – for the most part so far – in enabling us to not just survive, but evolve.

But the problem is: our senses are limited by the physical environment, and by our perception of time.

Discoveries in physics, in particular particle physics and quantum mechanics, have revealed that the nature of reality is far more bizarre than the world our senses can comprehend.

Time, for one, is not constant, nor does it necessarily move in one direction like an arrow. It is, in a sense, fluid and malleable, affected by the curvature of space due to the presence of matter (mass).

How does all this relate to transcending time and “not doing”? And how can this lead to transcending the self?

To begin with, I would like to hint at a possible way to shift the way we perceive existence. For I sense that we are at the precipice of a great paradigm shift.

In a way, it has already begun. While individuals are asserting their rights and privileges (often at the expense of the rights and privileges of others), billions of underprivileged around the world are struggling to survive. These people – at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy – have no time to debate privileges and have very little means to assert their rights.

In a world that is rapidly shrinking, and information readily shared, the disparities between the “haves” and “have nots” become all the more jarring.

Such a way of coexisting is simply not sustainable, and apart from moral and ethical concerns, point to a fundamental schism in what it means to exist as individuals, on one hand, and what our collective humanity really means.

How do we reconcile the two?

It begins with a shift in the way we perceive the self.

Our concept of self is in many ways limited by our physical body and senses, which in turn affect our cognitive abilities and the way we perceive time. You could say that we are “trapped” by time and our physical existence. To make sense of all this, and to forge some semblance of meaning in our lives, we are compelled to “do” things, to achieve, to grow, to evolve. Life becomes a process – a journey – towards some ideal – that is anchored to the flow of time.

Our motivation – as individuals – to be “doers” and achievers has led to great progress and leaps in the evolution of human civilisation.

But – as pointed out – it has also led to a growing disparity between the “haves” and “have nots”, and competing ideologies of the right way to “do” things – at both the individual and collective levels – have led to much global conflict.

To continue to perceive the self as individual “doers” – focussing merely on our respective ideologies of the right way of “doing” – is to risk ending up as self-absorbed, egocentric, solipsistic individuals who are unable to see things from others’ perspectives, leading to conflicting worldviews, intolerance, xenophobia, or even a refusal to recognise the rights of those who are different.

Furthermore, over-competitiveness, the stresses from trying to “do” more, have more, achieve more, could lead to a life of anxiety, feelings of self-inadequacies, fears of failure, and depression.

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