Paul Andersen: Training myself to do nothing
I needed a quiet place to practice. My backyard in the Seven Castles neighborhood of the Fryingpan Valley was perfect, so I reclined in a folding chair under a shade tree and just sat.
What a discipline. Just sitting. And yet, isn’t that what I have worked my life for? Built my home for? Scrimped and saved for? “Look at me!” I called out to my wife, Lu, who was weeding the garden. “I’m not doing a damned thing.”
She offered a tolerant smile signifying yet another quirky aspect of her husband, then went back to tugging on a deeply rooted bindweed. I sat back even more content. How nice to watch other people work.
Sitting idly is not something that comes naturally to doers. The verb “to do” is the opposite of the verb “to be.” The first implies activity. The second implies passivity. But “to be” is not at all passive in the Shakespearean sense of Hamlet’s existential query: “To be or not to be?”
The prince of Denmark asks whether he should live or die, whether he should be. Socrates worked a similar theme when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living. For Socrates, being was the active principle in knowing oneself — gnothi seauton. Self-knowledge is the Socratic path to the highest human function: the “pursuit of wisdom.”
But that’s lost on a nation of doers. America is not a divine superpower by sitting idly on a folding chair in the dappled shade of a tree. America did the American continent. America did the world. America did the moon and outer space. Does America know itself? Not by a long shot.
I’m a retiree-in-training, so I decided it’s time to train myself in the relaxation arts. As habituated as I am to doing, I’ve decided to be. By being, I mean plumbing the depths of my being in a way that would make Socrates proud.
So, sitting in my backyard, I watched the rainbow mist from the sprinkler water our postage stamp lawn. For guilt avoidance as my wife strained to jerk out a thistle, my mind hurriedly compiled other accomplishments of the day: 1. Pulled a few weeds. 2. Washed breakfast dishes. 3. Ran a load of clothes washing and hung it on the line. 4. Fixed a broken handrail. 5. Mowed the lawn.
“That’s enough!” I told myself. It’s OK to simply sit and feel the caress of the summer breeze that’s rustling the leaves and keeping down the mosquitos. This is my reward for 25 years of homebuilding, for the Herculean labors I’ve poured into this place.
Slaves built the ancient world, one stone at a time. I slaved to build my home, one stick at a time. The trees I planted as spindly saplings are now mature and beautiful. The stone terraces I built with my son, Tait, now harbor the lush foliage of gooseberries, currants, fruit trees and rhubarb so big it’s like “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Looking back, it’s all been a labor of love for home and family. Now it is bearing fruit, literally and figuratively, just in time for my “golden years.” We harvest our gardens to enrich our bodies. I harvest the peace and beauty of our home to enrich my soul.
When I send out the veterans I serve at Huts for Vets for hourlong solos in the wilderness, I advise them to simply sit still and be.
“A solo is easy,” I tell them. “All you need to do is explore the connection between you and all of existence.”
But contemplative time is not easy, especially for men and women who have suffered moral injuries. Sitting still and doing nothing means letting thoughts flow without restraint. Such random imaging is far more entertaining than a 100 TV channels, Facebook, Google and all the electronic distractions that interfere with gnothi seauton.
I sat for 20 minutes before an inexorable urge propelled me to empty the wheelbarrow. That broke the spell until my next life intermission when sitting and doing nothing may become a little easier and last a little longer.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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