Photo by iBrotha
Have you ever spent a whole day doing absolutely nothing, either for productivity or pleasure?
The closest I’ve come has been on silent meditation retreats at a Buddhist monastery.
The retreats I’ve attended have lasted between 3 and 10 days. The schedule and rules are designed to minimise not just fun and distractions but also productive activity. That means no talking at any time, except for essential practicalities such as ‘Where are the saucepans?’. It also means no TV, radio, Internet, mobile phone, or entertainment of any kind. There are a few spiritual books, but you’re even discouraged from reading them, as they take you away from the present moment. No work either, apart from an hour of ‘working meditation’ each day, hoovering floors and cleaning toilets to keep the retreat centre running. And obviously everybody’s tucked up in single beds at night.
So what do you do all day? The wake-up bell rings at 5 a.m., giving you half an hour to get ready for the first meditation session. The rest of the day alternates between sitting meditation (usually for 30 to 45 minutes at a time) and walking meditation (walking back and forth between two fixed points, while maintaining present-moment awareness). Breakfast is at 7 a.m. and the last meal of the day is lunch at 11 a.m. The eating part’s not as bad as that might sound – the food is usually delicious and there’s plenty of it. If you’re really feeling faint during the afternoon someone will probably find a piece of chocolate, which technically counts as ‘medicine’. In the evening there is a talk from the retreat leaders.
So what is all this designed to achieve? As usual with Buddhism, that’s the wrong question. It’s not designed to achieve anything, quite the opposite. The idea is to be very present and aware of every moment, and to let go of your desire to ‘achieve’ things. In short, the idea is to do nothing at all.
Meditation is not about doing anything. It is pure attention without grasping, without interference. It is simply paying attention…
But isn’t paying attention doing something? Actually, no – not if it is pure, simple attention devoid of hope, fear, great, or expectation. Bare attention, in fact, is the only activity that does not involve doing something.
Zen priest Steve Hagen, Meditation – Now or Never
If you’re anything like me, someone who loves to work so much it can be hard to switch off at the end of the day, this is quite a shock to the system. Suddenly you’re off the hamster wheel, but your mind is still racing, thinking, planning. You’re itching to get on with something and you feel lost with nothing to do. The first few days of the retreat are usually the hardest, when you’d rather be anywhere else on earth – back in the office, in a meeting, in a pub, even in an argument – at least you’d have something to do, someone to spark off.
You’ve probably had a similar feeling at the beginning of the holidays. After weeks and weeks of activity, it takes a few days before you can really start to relax. But after that, it takes you into a different place entirely. You almost become a different person.
So What’s This Got to Do with Creativity and Productivity?
Seriously. Meditation is not designed to make you more creative or productive. If the monks saw me writing about meditation in the context of these things, they would probably find it very funny. Like watching someone climb into a jet plane, only to use it to drive down the road to the local supermarket for his weekly shopping.
If you approach meditation with the goal of boosting your inspiration or productivity, you will be disappointed. You’ll also miss out on the opportunity to experience what meditation does have to offer, which is far beyond the scope of this article.
It would be a bit like approaching a relationship with the goal of ‘developing your emotional intelligence’. While that might be a nice side effect of falling in love and having to deal with the consequences, I hope you’ll agree that the ‘falling in love’ part is the main event.
So I want to make it clear that what I’m going to write about next are really the side-effects of meditation. If I’d set out to achieve them, they probably wouldn’t have occurred.
To a degree, they are also likely side-effects of any ‘non-productive’ activity, such as taking a holiday, a day off or even a short break during a busy day. My aim is to highlight one of the paradoxes of productivity and especially creativity: beyond a certain point, doing more or working harder is actually counter-productive. Your energy and concentration levels dip, your frustration increases, and if you’re not careful you could be on the slippery slope to creative burnout.
I’m not suggesting you all rush off and join a monastery, but if you’re serious about creating and achieving things that really matter, you can’t do it all through sheer hard work. It feels counterintuitive, but in the context of your creative process, sometimes the most ‘productive’ thing you can be doing is chilling out at a barbecue, lying on a beach, watching a DVD or mucking about with your friends. Apart from any effect on your career and your business, it will do you the world of good.
So here’s what I learned about productivity from getting nothing done:
‘Damn Braces Bless Relaxes’
It’s only when you relax that you realise how tense you’ve been. After a few days of doing nothing but paying attention to my breathing, I could literally feel the tension easing out of my body. It struck me how uncomfortable and probably inefficient it was to be tensed up by constant activity. The quotation from William Blake is designed to remind me of this when I need it.
Put Things in Perspective
A retreat is a quiet time to step away from your everyday life. All your usual concerns and activities are far away, beyond the monastery walls. They start to seem small and trivial. It occurs to you that maybe, in fact, they are small and trivial. Things around you seem much more real and important – the grass beneath your feet, the blue sky yawning over your head, steam rising from a cup of tea in front of you. A bird singing. Your own breathing.
Some Things Are More Important Than Others
If you’re focused on getting things done, the danger is you do this indiscriminately – you try to do everything, for everyone, all the time. But when you step away from your to-do list and look at the big picture, some things strike you as more important than others, either because you care about them more, or they are areas where you can make a bigger difference, or both. From this perspective, being ‘busy’ starts to look like an excuse, a distraction from your real business in life. Once you see your real priorities clearly, it’s harder to go back to the old way of doing things.
Thinking Is Overrated
A few days into my first ten-day retreat, I noticed something odd happening. I started to experience moments of clarity, or sudden insight, about situations and problems I was dealing with at the time. It became obvious how I had been limiting myself, or looking at things in an unhelpful way. I could clearly see a ‘next step’ towards resolving the issue. And the odd thing was, I hadn’t been thinking about the situation at all – the realisation just struck me, out of the blue. If you’ve ever had an idea pop into your mind while you were doing something else, you’ll know what it felt like.
It usually didn’t happen during sitting meditation, when frankly I found it very easy to get lost in my imagination instead of paying attention to the present moment. More often than not, it was during walking meditation, out in the meadow at the back of the monastery. At no time did the insight come through thinking about or analysing the situation. All I was doing was being very present and paying attention to my senses – my breathing, the movement of my body while walking, the grass under my feet, the cloud-shadows racing across the grass.
My friend and colleague John Eaton would tell me the insights came from Bodymind, ‘the intelligence of the body, working through the Brain, the Nervous System, the Glands, the cells and the Immune system’. He would remind me that there is no absolute distinction between the brain and the rest of the body, just an artificial one in our mind.
As someone who had always performed well academically, and taken a certain pride in intellectual accomplishment, this was a surprising experience. It suggested that reason is a fairly limited tool for understanding myself and making decisions about things that really matter. And the parallel with the well-known ‘Eureka!’ moment of creative inspiration didn’t escape me. Since then, I haven’t given up on rational analysis altogether, but I find it faintly comical that so many people seem to deify reason. And I now incorporate physical activity and body awareness in my daily routine, particularly before writing. The best thing I can do before sitting down to write is to stop paying attention to my thoughts and get centred in my body. When I do that, writing becomes a breeze.
Work to Your Own Human Clock
Inevitably, I got attached to the moments of clarity. I started to wonder whether they meant I was ‘good at meditation’. I wanted more of them and was disappointed when an ‘insightful’ morning was followed by an afternoon full of irritation, frustration and boredom. This happened for several days running until I realised that I was simply much more alert in the mornings. So instead of getting quite so frustrated during the afternoons, I became fascinated by the ups and downs of my energy and concentration during the daily cycle. It was like riding a rollercoaster or a water slide – after a few goes you get to know where the big dips and climbs are, and you can relax and go with the ride instead of clinging on full of tension. Scientists call this daily cycle the circadian rhythm, or ‘human clock’.
When I went back to work afterwards, I noticed how much easier it was to do focused tasks like writing in the morning. After lunch, the words and concepts wouldn’t flow, and I found myself getting frustrated. After about 5 p.m. I realised my mental energy was almost depleted.
So I’ve redesigned my working day around my circadian rhythm: whenever possible I keep the mornings free for writing; I schedule meetings from late morning onwards, when I could do with a bit of company and stimulation; afternoons are also for dealing with e-mail, errands and less demanding work tasks; by four or five o’clock I’m pretty unproductive, so this is a great time to head to the gym, for a change of scene and re-energising. And I’ve come to distrust any decisions or conclusions I arrive at after 5 p.m. As a general rule I try not to work in the evenings and leave the computer alone. Apart from the fact that I won’t get much done, even I’ve come to realise that there’s more to life than work! Taking time out to relax will also help me get a good night’s sleep, ready to get going again in the morning.
Is There Enough Nothing in Your Life?
Do you make time for doing nothing? How? When?
What time(s) of the day are you most alert and productive?
What benefits have you noticed from doing nothing?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.