My grandmother always had an aphorism on the tip of her tongue. I remember when she first uttered what seemed very Zen to me back in the 1970s: “If I can’t change the situation, I must change my attitude for my own peace of mind.”
Perhaps staying busy simply distracts us from feeling bad? That has certainly been my own experience. “Sorry, I’m too busy to feel now!” Still, I’m not sure it’s really about being happy or not, rather what happens when you live a life in the fast lane, which can be a dearth of equanimity (heightened anxiety or a readiness to anger, for instance) or a malaise.
I also came to realize that during the depths of the pandemic — when many experienced increased isolation, deepened polarization and worsened mental health — my malaise surged. The pandemic itself was central to all that but I wondered if the loss of distractions was also to blame. To paraphrase Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.
I’m reminded of one of my daily covid walks when the pandemic was hitting one of its peaks. A neighbor ran up to me (but stayed six feet away) and joyously recounted that she’d just finished 365 consecutive days of meditating on the Ten Percent app. She told me it was life changing; she slept better, felt more resilient and could better handle stress.
I’d meditated in the past, and decided to try it again, “sitting” with a variety of different teachers offered on various meditation apps. Some were formal in their practice, some quasi-religious, and then there was this one irreverent guy who seemed not to take it so seriously. I mean, his meditations were almost fun, if that’s possible. And he didn’t call it meditation — preferring to say it’s all about “doing nothing.”
The group meets weekly online via YouTube for about a half-hour, when Jeff Warren, also co-author of the best-selling “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics,” says “we can use the time to doodle, stare vacantly into space or meditate.” He promises it’s a training in equanimity. Really? Do nothing will help me find inner calm?
Warren leads the live stream, which is attended by a few hundred people from all over the world, who check in with one another each week. People share their ongoing challenges — from the birth of a baby to the death of a parent — and that was just in one week. (Often, 1,000 or more replay the live stream during the week, according to YouTube statistics.
But what happens when you’re doing nothing? A lot, as it turns out, but you have to do a little work to get there. In the past, I found myself bouncing back and forth between being fidgety, distracted, bored and even irritated. Warren’s YouTube meetup was a different experience. He advises people to keep their expectations low and to exit anytime by clicking the “leave” button. Yes. You can leave.
Warren doesn’t tout greater focus, lower blood pressure or reduced stress, some of the known benefits of meditation. If anything, he hopes people will be able “just to sit there and … be a human being without compulsively needing to upgrade your situation.” Or, put another way, “to find genuine rest in the middle of the busyness.”
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 distraction and political insanity, has written that “too much busyness is counterproductive” and that we confuse effort with effectiveness. In one article, he quotes the Dutch work expert Manfred Kets de Vries, who wrote, “[busyness] can be a very protective” defense "mechanism for warding off disturbing thoughts and feelings.”
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 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! What is it like?' ” Then Vago gets into a playful debate with his son “on whether doing nothing is actually doing something — and whether you can really ever do nothing.”
Putting on his neuroscientist hat, Vago tells me: “Doing nothing” is the passive day-dreamy state many of us know, the default resting state for the mind, which, in terms of brain health is a good thing. When we passively allow our minds to wander, he says, it can move toward content that is helpful and adaptive — or self-reflective and maladaptive. Mind-wandering, at its best, can be constructive for creativity or focused planning. Neuroscientists, he says, refer to this passive day-dreamy state of “doing nothing” as the default resting state for the mind. Our brains require this downtime not only to recharge, he says, but to process all the data we’re deluged with, to consolidate memory, and reinforce learning. Anything that gets in the way of all that can be detrimental to health.
I’d like more of that, I think to myself.
By the end of the second of Warren’s sessions I attended, my mind had begun to quiet down. Less fidgety, for sure. Breathing deeply — in through my nose, out through my mouth — calmed me. I could tell that my heart rate had fallen. I stopped thinking about my to-do list (even what to make for dinner afterward), my sister’s cancer diagnosis and the topsy-turvy state of the world. And I enjoyed the online community, being with a group of people — doing nothing together.
Over time, I’ve found a new calmness or the beginnings of equanimity. I came to realize that “doing nothing” is not actually doing nothing; it’s really about doing nothing useful, which helps to keep me rooted in the present, and prevents me from skipping ahead to the future (where worry stalks us).
I’ve learned that you can “do nothing” almost anywhere. It helps to have a designated time (like Warren’s weekly meeting), or you can put a hold on your calendar (say 15 or 30 minutes a day). I’m finding that I can “do nothing” on walks, swimming, even washing the dishes or folding the laundry. Leave your device behind. Do your best to turn off your brain. Close your eyes (unless you’re out 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 not have agreed with my grandmother’s advice that busy people are happy people, having written, “busyness is seen as a form of laziness,” meaning that we instinctively answer the phone when it rings or reflexively reply to emails as they come in and don’t prioritize where to put our time and effort.
But I hope Grandma would be happy to see me following some of her advice, notably her admonition: If I can’t change the situation, I must change my attitude for my own peace of mind.”