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Maybe we just need to busy ourselves more with doing nothing

“Just because there’s room in my valise here, I am stuffing it with hay. It’s the same with our life’s valise: we pack it full of anything that comes to hand, just to avoid leaving an empty space.” 

I can’t help feeling that Ivan Turgenev, writing in the 19th century, could be describing today’s world. I am certainly guilty of filling “the unforgiving minute,/With sixty seconds worth of distance run” (as Rudyard Kipling urges us to do in his poem If). And I’m not so sure it’s a good idea.

Once, my wife booked me on to a Relaxation Day at the Amoghasiddhi Kadampa Buddhist Centre in Attleborough, Norfolk. Apparently the stress of being overworked and trying to keep everyone (except myself!) happy was boiling over and scalding anyone who came near. 

“I haven’t got time to relax!” I said. 

But she wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. (Ironically, it was my inability to say “no” to so many other people that had led to the stress in the first place.)

Now, I’m not really a religious person – I distrust tribalism of any kind, religious, political or national. It lays a divisive and explosive “them and us” minefield between people who have far more in common than not. Letting someone else do all your thinking for you is a very slippery slope into collective insanity (Think the Nazis and al Qaida). 

Personally, I find “truths” about life all over the place: even scrawled on a cubicle door in a public toilet.

Anyway, I digress. On the way to the centre, I was expecting a church-like set-up with priests in robes and New Agers wearing vacant grins. Thankfully, what I found was an old house with comfy settees and a cafe that serves great espresso. And people in jeans and T-shirts exuding warm smiles that seemed to come from deep inside.

So, what did I learn? Apart from being humbled by the struggles some people were coping with, I learned the art of doing nothing. They call it meditation, but essentially it was just sitting quietly, letting the world carry on without you, and allowing your thoughts and feelings to come and go without chasing, or getting entangled in, any of them. 

At first, the urge to get up and do something “useful” was unbearable. The Protestant work ethic is a powerful force. But before I knew it the morning session was over and we were chatting and tucking into a delicious lunch. By the end of the day I was more relaxed than I’d been for months. 

Of course, that was the easy bit; achieving the same sense of inner calm in the busy-ness of everyday life is a lot more challenging.

Nevertheless, I remain undaunted and feel I now have the tools, and an unexpected ally: poetry. 

Yes, you read that right. Instead of turning on the TV, I’ve taken to sitting by the fire with a poem or two (George Szirtes’ The Burning of the Books and Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture are a couple of my favourites). 

As Stephen Fry says in his excellent book, The Ode Less Travelled, a poem has to be savoured. You have to take your time. And making the time to read, or write, poetry is a kind of meditation, an opportunity to get back in touch with ourselves and our shared humanity on a deeper, more intimate, level. 

And in that quiet and solitude, I have made friends again with feelings that had been smothered as I tried to stuff more and more hay into my battered valise, bursting at the seams. 

I have discovered that it is in the spaces between our thoughts that we can find the creativity to deal with life’s challenges. That creativity is with us all along, but her voice is quiet and we must stop... and listen. 

We just have to allow ourselves the time to do nothing.


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