Reconsidering “Doing Nothing”


Several people have asked me about how I spent my Thanksgiving holidays. I have responded “Oh, slow and restful.”  Yet, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I wrote in my journal that I had been struggling with the feeling that I had been “doing nothing” over the break.

On one hand, I clearly think of “doing nothing” as wasting time, not being productive and not working. The story I tell myself equates “doing nothing” with being lazy. To balance this self-judgement, I think of myself as not being very good at doing nothing, because I am usually doing something, whether it is knitting or writing, or reading or cooking (which, of course, makes me virtuous).

On the other hand, I believe all of us need rest and times of re-creation. In recognition of this need, I have been trying to include time for contemplative prayer into my spiritual practice. However, I realized the other day that I tend to think of contemplation as one more activity- albeit an activity where I am “doing nothing.”   This finally struck me as an odd contradiction – that I am trying very hard to DO something while “doing nothing.”

As I have been reflecting on this, I’ve realized that the story I have constructed about “doing nothing” isn’t helpful. I need to revise this story, or perhaps come up with a different term.

One of the ways I spent my time over the holiday weekend was to read Richard Rohr’s book Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer.  While I enjoyed his book, I found myself a bit frustrated that he never told me how to pray, that is, what to do.  What he does say is something I find more difficult because it is about being and not doing.

“Prayer” Rohr says,” is not primarily saying words or thinking thoughts.”  Prayer is “a stance. It is a way of living in the Presence, living in awareness of the Presence, and even of enjoying the Presence.” Contemplation, he suggests is not about doing nothing, but about away of being. Rohr also says “All spiritual disciplines have one purpose: to get rid of illusions so we can be present”(Rohr, Everything Belongs, 31).

I realized that a part of the story that shapes me is the illusion that doing something is better than doing nothing. I have to confess that “doing something” gives me a sense of being in control. Oh, I say to myself, “I know being is as important as doing.” But I realized that I tend to think of being as a kind of passivity, the opposite, of course, of doing. But this dualistic thinking is part of the problem, keeping me from being present in the moment, and “living in the Presence.”

In Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Rohr says that contemplation is about holding together opposites, and becoming comfortable with the ambiguity that is so much a part of life. Well, this is certainly an entirely different way of thinking about contemplation that might get  me out of the being/doing dualism. The problem is, I don’t really like ambiguity and I don’t find it an easy place to dwell.

Rohr, however, does not suggest that the spiritual life, in which we live in the present moment is easy. Contemplation takes discipline, and it not just the discipline of sitting still. It requires a much harder discipline of getting out of our own way, which includes moving beyond our dualistic thinking.  For Rohr contemplation brings us to the awareness that “My life is not about me. I am about life.” This life is full of ambiguity and contradictions, but it is also more than that.  Rohr reminds us that the foundation of life is God and “God is about love” (Rohr, Everything Belongs, 79).

Now, rather than asking myself how do I spend my time, was I doing nothing or doing something, I am trying to ask a different question.  Am I living in the present, aware of the Presence, and growing in love?

I’ll let you know how it goes.

For your reflection: How do you think of “doing nothing?” Do you tend to have a judgmental view of yourself when doing nothing as I do?  What are the practices or disciplines you engage in to be aware of Presence?”