A few years back I wrote a guest blog for an Aussie based site called Little Wren. The blog was titled ‘The Sweet Art of Doing Nothing’.
It was written at a time when the concept of doing nothing was imposed on me due to current circumstances, rather than an active choice. Although I tried to take this in my stride and embrace the gaps of nothing that seemed to swallow up my days, I was relieved when I transitioned into a different and busier phase of life.
I had all but forgotten this until more recently when I came across the Italian phrase la dolce far niente, quite literally ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’. Discovering the phrase took me back to this article (which serendipitously I had given a somewhat similar title, although the Italian saying was unknown to me at the time). It’s given me pause to reflect on those lazy Summer days when I had just arrived in Australia, at the time so discouraging, but in hindsight set with a warm, nostalgic glow.
Now I find I miss the opportunities doing nothing granted me. The sweet repose of sitting in the sun, people watching with a coffee in hand. A spontaneous walk to the beach for a swim in the ocean. Or simply laying on the sofa with only my thoughts. I’m beginning to realize these moments may be more crucial for our sense of well-being than we often allow.
La Dolce Far Niente
For the Italians, the concept isn’t reserved for the time-rich of us, it’s an idea that is ingrained as part of their culture. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Italy, you’ll no doubt have noticed how Italians like to take their time.
I recall the last time I visited, almost a decade ago. Staying in a tiny village just outside of Venice and the wonderful slow pace. Joining the throngs of locals in the village square at dusk for wine, cigarettes and plentiful shared plates of olives and bread. Everyone sat together, chatting and introducing as well as welcoming newcomers and tourists. The evening stretched out into the early hours, and at no point did anyone become too much. No one was in a rush, with even the bar owners eventually joining us with a bottle in hand. Similar scenes piqued my interest during the day, stopping streetside to enjoy a fresh espresso and people watch or observing the busy staff in an open kitchen patiently rolling fresh pasta.
It seems so easy when we are out of our usual zones to be able to embrace the idea of doing nothing, of slotting into the pace we might find ourselves in and ‘going with the flow’ as it were. I’ve had numerous such travel adventures where this was exactly the case, but somewhere down the line, I’ve begun to lose sight of the heady experience doing nothing has previously afforded me.
“Doing nothing is actually an event in and of itself. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s not as easy as one might think. We are so ingrained with the idea of the working or studying to set time frames and the idea that we must constantly be doing something, looking busy, following a routine, adhering to ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’. Our daily lives are so intensely entwined with our online lives that the concept of ‘doing nothing’ seems utterly unrealistic. Taking the time to sit, and pay attention to nothing, is really actually quite a challenge.”
I wrote those words back in my original article and it seems, even though I had all the time for nothing back then, doing nothing now is equally as difficult to embrace for me (and I suspect, many of us). Doing nothing isn’t solely about the lack of a specific activity or purpose or result. It also means coming to terms with sitting with yourself and everything that might encompass. For many, the idea of finding comfort in being alone, with your thoughts, desires, and daydreams can be daunting. It’s uncomfortable in our #hustle focused society, but a practice well worth embracing.
As this year and decade begins its quiet draw to a close, I’ve been reflecting on what changes I might need to work towards to ensure I enter the next phase of life on the right foot.
I have a small feeling that la dolce far niente might be a good concept to start (re)adding into my repertoire.
Learning to Embrace Doing Nothing
“When I go out of the house for a walk, uncertain as yet whither I will bend my steps, and submit myself to my instinct to decide for me, I find, strange and whimsical as it may seem, that I finally and inevitably settle south-west, toward some particular wood or meadow or deserted pasture or hill in that direction.”
— Henry David Thoreau
Inviting more la dolce far niente into your life at first seems simple enough. Firsthand experience has taught me though that it’s often the first thing to be bumped down the priority list when faced with the ordeals of daily life. To better embrace doing nothing, I’m focusing on the following things:
Reflect on what allows you to do nothing
It’s simply no good saying I’ll go for a walk or read a book if those things don’t offer you the opportunity to embrace doing nothing.
Personally, I know I love walking. I love taking my time and picking out new routes, pinpointing a location on a map and then trying to find my way there on foot. But if for you five minutes into a woodland stroll you find yourself feeling irritable by the heat, or cold, or insects, or muddy footpath or anything else, then the essence of la dolce far niente quickly becomes lost.
Spend a little time reflecting on what helps you embrace doing nothing. Don’t think about what you think should create this for you, really hone in on what works for you. If it’s sitting on the sofa eating ice cream — great! Do that!
Try a little mindfulness
Embracing doing nothing ultimately means embracing yourself and where you’re at in life. When we stop and take stock, we open the flood gates for any number of thoughts or narratives we may have been successfully keeping at bay by keeping ourselves full to the brim with busyness.
One aspect that always appeals to me from mindfulness is the teaching to allow thoughts to enter your consciousness but to not allow them to elicit a reaction. These thoughts can teach us a great many things so it’s important to allow them room while ensuring we don’t let them hijack us.
As part of my new venture into la dolce far niente, I’m keeping a notebook close to hand and ensuring I note any of these potentially disruptive thoughts down ready to return to explore more fully when I decide the time is right.
Be conscious but don’t force it
A part of making more space for doing nothing is, of course, being aware when opportunities arise and embracing them, but it’s also important not to fabricate or pre-plan these opportunities. I’m specifically thinking of the ways many of us (myself completely guilty) like to line up that perfect photo-ready scenario for posting on social media proclaiming our self-care/mindfulness/peaceful indulgences.
For me, leaving my phone out of it and simply savouring the moments of nothing I find along the way is going to be absolutely vital as I start to further nurture and tailor the space I afford myself to be, well, myself.
I think if we all stopped a little more and considered it a little more, that might be all we’re really after.
The small (but hopefully regular) opportunity to be truly ourselves.