Doing Nothing Well: Easing Stress

Non-Doing Lao TzuMost of us complain about “stress,” but we have a superficial understanding of its sources. Like any complex psychological experience, stress has many sources and causes. One of these is that we are not skilled at being idle, doing nothing. It is as if we have lost our “neutral” gear and have to be moving and doing at all times.

Even when we decide to “take it easy,” we are still doing, doing, doing as we “relax.”  We go to a coffee shop, bring our computer, drink our coffee, write emails, look out the windows, fantasize, fret to ourselves, worry, daydream, plan vacations, take phone calls, send emails. And that’s “relaxing.”

“Stress” is Not the Real Problem

When people say “stress” they usually are referring to things that are outside of themselves. “My job is so stressful.” “My kids stress me out.”

Actually, WE are the ones who stress ourselves out. And part of how we do that is by believing our minds when our minds tell us we have to be constantly busy at something.

Look Busy, The Boss Is Coming

You are the boss. More specifically, there is a part of the mind called (by Voice Dialogue practitioners) the “Inner Pusher” who pushes us to do, do, do, and do some more. Even in our leisure life it is at work, creating lists of things for us to do. When we don’t do everything the pusher sets up for us to do, our “Inner Critic” gets to work, and gives us a slew of unpleasant thoughts to motivate us. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, we could be on vacation, and then the message is “Vacation harder!” Work hard, play hard. Eat hard, live hard, die hard. What’s wrong with soft? What’s wrong with really, truly, doing nothing?

Nothing Is Not So Easy

Part of what’s wrong with doing nothing is that it’s not so easy. We’d like some relief from our “stress,” but we’re not willing to look at what our minds are doing to us. It can be uncomfortable to slow down and examine our thinking, examine our feelings, drop into this moment. It’s particularly uncomfortable if we’ve habitually been on the run for a long time, never slowing down, never examining our experience of this moment. Again, when we do slow down, we think we need to do that with alcohol, on a beach somewhere, watching the surf and planning our next vacation. How could we really, truly slow down?

“Stress” is Life

When we hunger for a break from “stress,” we are rejecting our lives. What we care about, is what “causes” us “stress.” If we didn’t care about it, it wouldn’t stress us out. So part of the problem of stress is how deeply we habitually misunderstand the problem. “Stress reduction” techniques abound, and most of them are pretty good for the short run. In the long run, however, we need a fundamentally different approach. It’s not about relaxation, anyone can do that and fall asleep, or endlessly self-distract. To relax into the moment, to stay alert, is to wake up to life, not to avoid it. “Stress” melts away while all the stressful experiences–or the experiences we used to think of as our “stress”–continue on just the same. We still suffer, but now we are glad to suffer, and are not in a perpetual state of feeling stressed.

Tune In, Turn On, Drop In

To do nothing well, we need to tune into something other than our minds. What is not the mind, is the body. Our 5 senses are our teachers in mindfulness and in true de-stressing, true non-doing. We can tune into them, we can turn on our senses, turn up the volume and the contrast and the brightness and be fully present. In doing so, we drop into this moment and become much more fully alive. Caffeine will not help us do this (though it can help prevent us falling asleep while meditating!) Other drugs will not allow us to do this. Drinking alcohol, emailing, fantasizing, playing sudoku, making phone calls, none of these things, while perhaps fine in their proper contexts, none of these things will help us do nothing well. If we are serious about taking care of our health, taking responsibility for our lives, mastering this paradox of “stress” is essential. We master it by learning non-doing, and entering fully into our lives.

How do you respond to stress?

What is your experience of doing nothing, or non-doing?

The following two tabs change content below.
Joseph Rhinewine, PhD. People collaborate with me to live life fully: with principle, passion and vigor. My expertise is providing and teaching Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based, experiential and relational behavior therapy. I also apply Acceptance and Commitment processes to coaching those who wish to take their lives to a new level.

Latest posts by Joseph Rhinewine (see all)

This entry was posted in Stress and Stress Management. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.