In Physics there is no such thing as nothing. Even the vacuum of space is awash with noise, light, and sub-atomic particles. You may think you have destroyed a piece of paper by shredding it, but the pieces are still there. You could burn them, but then you have ash, and if you pulverise the remains further, you get atoms or sub-atomica. Everything still exists. Everyone now carries molecules of Oliver Cromwell in their bodies and he died in 1658.
We spend so much of our lives rushing around doing stuff that we forget the value of doing nothing – workaholics only stop to sleep or die. That is not I.
There is an art to doing nothing – It comes easier to you if you are bone idle like myself, but sometimes making time to do nothing at all can be hard work
There is an assumption that humanity only progress by inventing, making and working continually. The people who sit and do nothing are seen as letting the side down. This is a fallacy – it is the quiet contemplative people who have the ideas that make the world go round.
The proverb Necessity is the Mother of Invention is nonsense. Necessity forces us to work hard and leaves us no time to be inventive or creative. A country in famine or drought obliges its people to hunt, gather and seek the necessities of food, clothing and shelter, without which they can’t survive. Time to think about how things could be better is a luxury – you need to be able to relax, sit back and think things through. Once a degree of comfort is established, when there is plenty of food in store, and lots of water to drink, and there is no more need to build or maintain or defend the village, people can put their feet up, relax, contemplate their navals and indulge in idle contemplation. It was in such bourgeoisie luxury that Thales thought of the question “What does the entire Universe consist of?” It was the first official question of Western philosophy. Had Thales been struggling with a plough, or having to make bread, such a reflection would not have popped into his head. Many creatively minded people struggle against writer’s block all day and then find suddenly, when they switch off, that the great book they hoped to work on, just pops into their heads out of nowhere, as if by inspiration. Doing nothing is a luxury – albeit a free one.
Many people feel as if they need to keep us active and moving around all the time. It’s often hard to even just relax by sitting in a bar without people wanting you to dance or join in the bingo, Karaoke, etc. People over-insist on exercise, jogging, push-ups, etc – often to the point of killing themselves. Of course, over-eating, drinking, smoking, etc can kill us too, but they are activities – they involve doing something.
There is an under-rated rarely shown Spike Milligan film called The Bed Sitting Room set after a nuclear war, in which the survivors are forced to move around and keep active because when they stay still they mutate into household furniture due to the radioactive fallout. The title is the bedroom that Ralph Richardson slowly mutates into as the film progresses. I found myself strangely envious of him compared to the silly antics needed to keep everyone from sharing his fate.
WHAT NOTHING ISN’T
Many people have the wrong idea about doing nothing – they assume watching TV or reading a book or going to the cinema is doing nothing, as they are opening up to incoming sensory input from others. Alas, though a pleasure I often indulge in myself, these activities are not anything, as consciously taking in the information presented involves some concentration. It can be hard work taking in such information.
Just not going to work is not always nothing – a day off work may be filled with other chores, i.e., shopping, housework, etc. How many of us take a vacation and come back so tired from the endless activity there that we feel as if we need another holiday before we even start work again?
Being ill is far from nothing, though it might keep us off work. We will face a regime of sick note completion, pill taking, visits to chemists, doctors, etc, In hospital, we will constantly be woken up to take medication, and sleeping pills, or subjected to physiotherapy, etc. Hospitals run to set timetables that can feel like a prison regime.
Another non-nothing is sunbathing, as Sun-worshippers need to be alert enough not to fall asleep in the Sun and burn, and not to have their clothes stolen while they lie around semi nude or totally naked. They may need to also regularly reapply suntan lotions, etc.
Meditation is not nothing either as it involves a conscious wilful focussing of mental energy to recite a mantra or maintain a breathing exercise.
The last great non-nothing I’ll cover is sleep – generally sleep will get you rather than you taking it. Insomniacs like myself sleep sooner or later when exhaustion demands it. You may have to work hard to sleep, in getting a comfortable bed, pillow, etc. You may also need to set a clock to wake you up; Sleep involves snoring, dreaming and a lot of wriggling about, as anyone sleeping in the same bed, as another person knows.
Life is short, so to many, the more we do the better. The trouble is that they expect us to do more for them than for ourselves. The central premise of Marxism is that the workers, the Proletariat, are exploited in that the company takes the lion’s share of what their work is worth. In Britain we now have a National Minimum Wage, which many companies exploit blatantly as the bare legal minimum they can get away with offering their staff for a great deal of work and profit. Of course, we need to earn enough money to be able to have the food, clothing and shelter to be able to afford to do nothing. Few of us have any choice but to work or find work.
There is still a strong Protestant Work Ethic and society still generally treats it as ungodly not to work and be productive. Work tends to be intensely production target and bonus driven. Worse, failing to make a target can result in disciplinary hearing and potentially lead to dismissal. Shylock needs his pound of flesh out of us no matter what. .
Many companies rob staff of any precious coveted time off, expecting endless overtime, (sometimes unpaid, or underpaid), and the two day weekend has largely vanished. Most companies now expect staff to at least work six days a week, and in rotation shift patterns, and anti-social hours that make organizing quality time off nigh on impossible. Holidays at peak times, i.e. when the Summer holidays for kids mean that parents want time off to take children abroad, become difficult to attain. Too many staff competes for them, and many find themselves refused while small elite gets them as privilege. At one time, Mill towns like Oldham in Lancashire took a large communal break together – a period of a week’s holiday known as the Wakes, often celebrated with rush cart parades in the streets, or the entire community going to the seaside together. Such halcyon says are now a distant nostalgic memory. Many companies today in the UK disregard bank holidays, such as Mayday and August Bank Holiday. Some disregard Christmas too. Obviously some jobs, such as hospital and policing, etc need to be maintained all year round, but many companies demand staff presence out of sheer Ebenezer Scrooge greed too.
The unemployed are often regarded as idle workshy fops who have no desire to work or do anything else, but that is not true in many cases. The longer you are out of work, the harder a task it is to find work, and many unemployed people work very hard at it. Some can be driven to lethargy and laziness by lack of success, but they are not consciously doing nothing – they just don’t know what to do, and feel that they have run out of options. They cease caring about themselves. That is not doing nothing – it is having nothing to do – it is loss of hope.
WHAT NOTHING IS
Willful Nothing is emptying your mind completely, or having no responsible work duties to perform, or both. The best places to unwind totally are those where you can be in solitude. Many men like to have their private shed or den to retreat to, just as kid’s retreat to some private tree house. Others may go for a long walk, or sit on a beach or by a lake. While walking might seem like an activity, you can minimise your thinking and just put one foot in front of another. Of course, total empty headedness is impossible, as with the physical laws mentioned above – you want to watch you don’t blunder into bogs or off a cliff, or into traffic, or get hopelessly lost.
Nothing is an ideal that can never be attained, other than in death, which none of us want. Nothing is not boredom or boring. It is fun, relaxation and utterly, shamelessly selfish. In many ways, you need to be alone to do nothing. Having a second person with you will be a distraction, though shared nothingness is possible in short bursts of inactivity and very rewarding when achieved. Children rarely take to doing nothing. They will soon get agitated and bored if prevented from talking, or doing stuff.
I remember my first nothingness experiment. I was at school, aged about fifteen. The class was being particularly rowdy so the teacher told us to see who could be the quietest and most stationary statue for the longest period. Most of the class gave up quite quickly. Two of us shared first place by not moving for the entire remainder of the lesson. The prize was a desultory bar of chocolate each, but I was thrilled that I found the exercise so interesting in itself. I repeated it frequently, and often still do.
There is the popular saying ‘Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.’ The fact is however that many jobs can be put off until tomorrow without great cost or harm. You may think if an expected letter hasn’t arrived that the post office is doing just that and you may be right.
There are several ways to prioritise a heavy workload, in which you have lots of jobs to do 1/. Do the lot as quickly as possible – this usually becomes an endless task as more tasks come your way as you progress, and you never finish. 2/. Prioritise - do the toughest jobs first, and save the easier tasks for, later, so your caseload gets easier as you go along. Take washing up for example. First of all, wash anything particularly breakable, such as glassware. You then shift the heavy-duty stuff like pans and baking trays that involves some elbow grease. Now work through the plates and dishes from biggest, dirtiest to smallest ones with a few crumbs on. Finally, do the cutlery. You can of course throw the lot in a dishwasher, and press a button. You may also find that leaving the washing up a day or two is not that bad. I sometimes leave the washing up until I run out of clean plates to eat from, or the sink is full and then I have no choice. 3/. Rush through the work at a faster than expected pace, and finish early enough to have extra time to relax. This will only work if your workload is not likely to be added to just as you are due to finish. If your boss expects you to finish your workload by 4 PM, try to finish by 2 PM or 3 PM, though keep a few tasks not quite complete to be able to keep the boss from finding something else to give you to do.
The Spanish have two of my favourite words associated with nothing - Manyana (Tomorrow) and Siesta. Manyana is a word consciously used to defer work and responsibility until later. A lot of jobs we treat as urgent and panic over are really not that vital anyway.
The afternoon siesta is a wonderful thing, especially in the searing heat of Continental Europe. Noel Coward was right that only ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday Sun’. Even a milder climate like that if the UK could do with a good decent siesta. In many British workplaces the traditional dinner hour has become the dinner fifteen-minute break. In some places, there are no breaks, and staff will eat sandwiches while still working at their computers. We are expected to wolf our food, use the loo and rush back to the job without having time to relax and unwind. That is a stress induced heart attack waiting to happen.
If a company does not give staff time off, staff will compensate by shirking and working less productively. They will get tired and make mistakes. They will feel less inclined to respect the company, seeing it merely as something they have to endure to get their money to be able to do stuff they want to do…. Hold on that thought – we need money to do stuff. Nothing costs nothing though! Going to a pub, club, cinema, holiday, etc, costs us our precious earnings. We waste money on petrol when a bus or train will take us to work or on a break more cheaply. (Buying a car involves the expense of driving lessons, the car, tax, insurance, petrol, oil, water, breakdown and maintenance, and that can be a king’s ransom. If less of us drove, the public transport system would have to improve to compensate us – and there is some luxury in being a passenger, when someone else does the driving, or flying for you. On planes, the autopilot even lets the pilot do nothing, though he needs to be alert in case he needs to take over in an emergency. Having more people taken by fewer drivers and pilots would be good for the environment. It’s only the big car manufacturers who prevent us from exploiting that. They sell fast cars that can reach speeds of 200 MPH, even though legally we are entitled to go no faster than 70 MPH on even the motorways. If cars were built to be incapable of transcending the speed limits we would be better off. We enjoy life more if we slow down and savour it. Blaze through life in a rush and you miss out. Tortoises move slowly and live to be 200 years old. Trees can last a 1,000 years. A gadfly is very active, but dead within 24 hours of being born.
BELIEF AND NOTHINGNESS
It is central to the religious philosophies of Jainism and Zen Buddhism that the less you do, the less trouble you cause. Jainists minimise the extent of movement to avoid even killing germs around themselves as they walk around.
Clearly, if you live in a monastery, refraining from sex, you are not adding to the World population, or going out fighting territorial wars. You are not competing in a rat race that will induce stress and make you push the other people back in life. You are free from a great deal of responsibility and burden. Asceticism is central to doing nothing. (NOTE – Willing to break my philosophical principle for sex and love with the right woman).
Most of us in the secular world will not take doing nothing to such extremes, though I for one envy the Zen Buddhists. For many of us, doing nothing is an occasional luxury. Society imposes too much on us to allow us to stay lazy long, though to me the longer we maintain aloofness the better. Nothingness is a very radical form of political statement – strike action is a way of saying no pay– no work. No improved conditions – no productivity. A company can quickly learn the meaning of nothing if their staff don’t turn up at their machines and computers.
Sometimes, nothing takes pre-planning and preparation. You have to make sure that no one can contact you, short of an emergency. Avoid taking cellphones with you on a trip. Too many people waste the relaxation of a journey with someone else at the wheel by yapping continually about bugger all or drowning the air in noise pollution music. They spoil the solitude for others too by being inconsiderate wankers.
I often travel in such a way that I reduce my physical activity to the absolute minimum. I will admire the view through a window for a whole journey (though I will often give in to bad faith and read a book too). Staying at hotels I never put the TV on and rarely read the newspapers. I often go camping too, to avoid the city lights and other activity, though pitching tents can involve a sense of doing some work to earn your nothing.
Of course, I am often active – my Civil War re-enactment, socializing, going to the pub, dancing, performing my poetry, job-hunting, and writing web pages and articles like this. It was sitting round with an empty head that brought this article to fruition though. I will always make time for myself and time for doing nothing – sweet FA always has its charm for me.
I love sitting or standing watching water in oceans, lakes, fountains, etc for hours at a time though I recently got presented with a stop and search form by the police who were convinced that by being by a Manchester fountain for so long I must have been there to stalk children who were running about in the water - They even told me I’d been seen taking pictures though I don’t own a camera or camera phone - if you are loitering without intent in public places, especially if there are kids around, be cautious.
“Slow down. You move to fast. Got to make the morning last. “ Simon & Garfunkel. (59th Street Bridge Song).
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