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Art of Doing Nothing

The Dutch concept of niksen or doing nothing exhorts us to drop out of the working world just for a little while. Research findings consistently indicate that by being busy at all times, we are slowly but surely losing our ability to be still and do nothing because our brains are now wired to oppose any kind of effort to be inactive.

Abhik Roy | New Delhi |

In this world of high speed and high efficiency, we tend to fill our time with activities of various kinds. Many of us even spend our Sundays, our nights off, and our holidays running from place to place taking care of chores that never seem to end. In his novella, Slowness, Milan Kundera warned us in no uncertain terms about the downside of leading a fast life: “When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself.”

Medical research findings indicate that an overly busy life is not healthy because it is frequently the cause of burnout, anxiety disorders, insomnia, depression and heart-related problems, among others. Even though our insanely busy life often wreaks havoc on our emotional, mental and physical wellbeing, most of us simply can’t take a break by doing nothing, or what the Dutch call niksen.

The Dutch concept of Niksen, or the art of doing nothing, has become the new buzzword in the American lexicon. Niksen has become enormously popular as an effective way to handle stress, burnout, anxiety and other stress-related ailments. According to Caroline Janssen, the best-selling author of the book, Niksen: The Dutch Art of Doing Nothing, niksen can be practised by anyone by slowing down and celebrating the “moment of not achieving.”

Essentially, the concept of niksen celebrates indolence, which may include just staring out the window, hanging out, listening to music, or looking at the sky. Niksen not only tells us that it’s okay to have periods of doing nothing but it also reminds us that purposely avoiding productivity is beneficial for our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.

The Protestant work ethic has had a profound impact on the Dutch lifestyle so much so that the Dutch often feel pressured to fill their leisure time with productive and purposeful activities. The cultural bias against doing nothing is also emphasized in the Dutch language. For example, the popular proverb Niksen is niks means “doing nothing is good for nothing.” The Dutch worldview of being productive and avoiding indolence has had a serious impact on many Dutch individuals. Several research findings show that many Dutch suffer from burnout, stress-related problems and the cases of anxiety are steadily on the rise.

Contrary to the cultural orientation of hard work, productivity and aversion to indolence, the new mantra of niksen or “doing nothing’ has become extremely popular in Holland. Niksen has been proven to be an antidote for stress and burnout. According to Carolien Hamming, a coach at CSR Centrum, an organization that teaches its members effective ways to deal with stress and burnout, “instead of constantly occupying your mind with what you need to do next or bouncing from one task to another, niksen is the practice of slowing it all down.

It’s a welcome reprieve from societal expectations about work and productivity that permeates the culture.” Niksen is about letting your mind go where it will without any kind of expectations. Hamming points out, “It’s a form of mental resting [and] recuperation, while you’re awake.” The Dutch certainly didn’t invent the concept of doing nothing. The philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome regularly made the practice of doing nothing the centre of their lives.

Philosophers from Schopenhauer to Bertrand Russell have also contemplated what it means to truly do nothing. The famous seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, famously noted: “All the unhappiness of men arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.” Shinto Buddhists living in the ancient city of Kyoto also believed in the philosophy of doing nothing.

Their motto was: “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” A lot of us have the mindset that it’s a sin to engage in idling; even our holiday time is all about “recharging” to help us survive in the world of work. The Dutch concept of doing nothing, on the other hand, exhorts us to drop out of the working world just for a little while. Research findings consistently indicate that by being busy at all times, we are slowly but surely losing our ability to be still and do nothing because our brains are now wired to oppose any kind of effort to be inactive.

According to Dr Sandi Mann, mental health practitioner and psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire and author of several books on mental health, even something like daydreaming makes us more creative and more efficient at problem-solving, and better at coming up with innovative ideas. For Mann, for all this to happen, though, we need to be totally idle ~ doing nothing. Mann says, “Let the mind search for its own stimulation, that’s when you get the daydreaming and mind wandering, and that’s when you’re more likely to get the creativity.”

For Mann, niksen helps you to become still and when you become still it lets you see things with more clarity and depth. While doing nothing may sound like a very simple idea, but when we are always busy and don’t seem to have the time just to sit back and relax, it may not be easy just do nothing. Hamming says this is precisely why we need to practice niksen, “especially when it feels uncomfortable, [we] need much more niksen.”

In her latest oped piece, “The Case for Doing Nothing” in The New York Times, Olga Mecking, a writer and a journalist, who lives in Netherlands, offers the following guidelines to practice niksen: We must make time for niksen and do it purposefully. We need to be mindful of when we are most productive and when our mind starts to shut off, losing our focus, and we start performing our tasks in a dull, monotonous way.

This is when we must take a break and engage in doing nothing. It’s a good idea to focus on prioritizing the things that we find to be important and bring us joy. By focusing on the important parts of our life, we will find the motivation to build free time into our schedule. We must try hard to resist the temptation to be busy all the time. We should not feel guilty when we take breaks from work or go on holidays. If we feel guilty about being perceived as “lazy” then we need to think of niksen not as a sign of laziness but an important life skill.

We must be realistic about our expectations. Learning the skill of niksen requires patience, time and effort. So, if we find ourselves not being able to fully embrace the practice of niksen, we should not feel discouraged. Sitting still and doing nothing may be uncomfortable in the initial stages but with patience and practice we can learn. We must reorganize our environment. Our surroundings have a major effect on how much niksen we can embrace. We should have a space either at work or at home that is conducive to practising not doing anything. If, for example, our bedroom is filled with stuff from our office, like a computer, laptop and so on, we will be reminded of work, which may act as an impediment to idling.

We live in an age of constant distractions and nothing is more important than practising sitting still and doing nothing. Pico Iyer, the author of niksen, writes: “You can go on vacation to Paris or Hawaii or New Orleans three months from now, and you will have a tremendous time, I’m sure. But if you want to come back feeling new ~ alive and full of fresh hope and in love with the world ~ I think the place to visit may be Nowhere.”

If we follow Iyer’s advice and sit still and do nothing, we may be able to get closer to our senses, attaining a higher degree of clarity, harmony and joy that endures. I don’t believe niksen or doing nothing is a luxury that’s reserved for only the privileged. On the contrary, it’s a practice that is necessary for anyone who wishes to have a healthier, happier life. It’s for all those folks who want to experience what the legendary Canadian singer, songwriter, and poet, Leonard Cohen, stated so movingly: that sitting still and doing nothing actually gets us “wide-awake, exhilarated, and pumping-hearted as when you are in love.”

(The writer is Professor of Communication Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles)