Day 69: Learning how to do nothing

One of my first observations — or, feelings, really — upon moving to rural Bihar was that many people didn’t do much during their free time. Sure, most people worked super hard during the day, but I couldn’t get over how little many people appeared to be doing when they were free. Just a lot of sitting around. Generally in small groups. Perhaps over chai. Maybe talking. Other times just sitting silently.

“Are they not bored?” I wondered, frustrated — a question which actually arose out of the the depths of my own internal restlessness.

I was never taught to always do stuff and to stay busy, but it’s part of the silent socialization that seems to occur in the U.S., at least where I grew up. Not engaging in some kind of tangible activity — whether playing sports or watching TV — is socially defined as boring, which creates a reality of experienced boredom when you aren’t “doing anything.” A self-fulfilling prophecy.

But what does it even mean to be doing nothing? Is it merely the absence of doing “something?” If so, then what does it mean to be doing something?

Hearkening back to my early teenage years, I remember even complaining about being bored when hanging out with friends. Spending time together wasn’t enough. Going to the mall or to a movie, or playing sports, or chatting online on AOL Instant Messenger, seemed to constitute “doing something.” Everything else generally fell under the realm of “nothing.”

And when friends weren’t around, I complained to my parents about being bored. They recommended that I read a book, play basketball, or call a friend — I suppose activities that represent “something.”

Photo by Sara Hylton

Being bored itself seems to be something that could only possibly arise from privilege; the process of surviving isn’t something I’ve ever heard anyone refer to as “boring.” I’ve only heard that from people who have all of their needs taken care of.

Which is where the extreme irony comes in; surviving is not boring. And yet, simply being alive is considered boring once survival is taken for granted. In fact, just being alive and being with our own thoughts seems to be the most boring and dreadful experience of all.

Which may be why we seem to spend so much of our time trying to stay busy — so that we don’t have to be alone. With ourselves. A way of deflecting our own existence and aliveness.

And maybe that’s why we’ve decided to term any lack of in-your-face stimulus as boring. It’s a silent social compact that allows all of us to avoid ourselves.

Some may read this as “hey — is he saying activities are ‘bad?’ So I have a lot of hobbies and I like doing stuff — what’s the big deal?”

That’s not the point. Leisure is beautiful, but in order for it to be leisurely, it can’t be fear-based — meaning, if we are engaging in activities because we are afraid of being alone and doing “nothing,” then that activity is hardly leisurely. It’s just a temporary island in an otherwise rushing river of suffering.

But if we can reach a point where we can experience comfort in nothingness, then maybe we can also enjoy whatever “somethings” we pursue more fully as well. Maybe we can also start to see the something in the nothing, and then boredom itself will also cease to exist. Maybe one day I, too, will be able to sit at the chai shop, silently, completely and utterly content.