In general, there are three different modes in which we can live our lives: doing, thinking and being. Most of the day we’re busy doing – working in our jobs, doing chores, following our hobbies and enjoying ourselves in our free time. Thinking usually takes place between activities, when there’s nothing to occupy our attention, or during activities which are more repetitive and undemanding, when we don’t need to concentrate too much.
And being? In general, we don’t spend much time being. Being occurs when we're relatively inactive and relaxing. It’s when our minds aren’t chattering away with thoughts, and when we aren’t concentrating our attention on tasks or activities. In this mode, we usually pay a lot of our attention to our surroundings, and to our own experience. We’re in this mode when we go for a leisurely walk, do sports such as swimming or running, meditate, do yoga or listen to music.
Of these three modes, our culture prizes the first two far above the third. Doing and thinking are seen as the engines of achievement. Thinking logically enables us to solve problems and come up with ideas. If we have a problem, we sit down and think it through. And doing – working and being busy – enables us to achieve our goals, to be productive, to make money and become successful.
But being is unproductive. It equates with laziness, and wasted time. Why waste our precious hours doing nothing when we could be filling them with activity and achievement?
Our politicians and business leaders would agree with this too. They need us to work long hours to keep the economy growing. For them, doing nothing means less production, a less competitive workforce and a lower GNP.
The Benefits of Being
But all of this is very misleading. On a psychological and a spiritual level, it’s extremely beneficial for us to spend time in being. It enables us to regenerate our energies, to re-attune to ourselves, and to regain the feeling of well-being and connection to the world around us. And even in terms of achievement, relaxing and ‘doing nothing’ can be extremely beneficial. States of being and inactivity allow the creative potentials of the mind to manifest themselves. They allow insights and inspirations to flow. It’s in these states that ideas suddenly come to us, seemingly out of nowhere - when songwriters have ideas for songs, when writers have ideas for stories, when scientists suddenly ‘see’ the answers to problems that have vexed them, when inventors have ideas for new inventions. These creative potentials are usually blocked by the busy-ness of our minds and our lives. In order for them to emerge, both our lives and our minds have to become relatively empty and quiet.
This is why many - perhaps most - of the greatest discoveries, inventions and creative ideas in human history have not come about through ‘hard work’ or sustained logical thinking, but by doing nothing. That is, they have mostly occurred by accident, or unconscious intuition, in states of relaxation.
The physicist Newton described how the ‘notion of gravitation came into his mind’ when he sat ‘in contemplative mood’ and saw an apple fall from a tree. (The apple didn’t actually fall on him, as is popularly believed.) The concept of coordinate geometry suddenly occurred to Rene Descartes when he was half asleep in bed, watching a fly buzz around the room. James Watt solved the problem of loss of heat in steam engines while walking in a park, an idea which led to the industrial revolution. (‘I had not walked further than the golf house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind,’ Watt wrote.) And as one final example, the physicist Nils Bohr effectively won the Noble Prize while unconscious. Drifting off to sleep, he dreamt he saw the nucleus of the atom, with the electrons spinning around it, just like our solar system with the sun and planets – and in this way he ‘discovered’ the structure of the atom.
It’s true that these ideas usually don’t occur completely out of nowhere – in many cases, the scientists had been grappling hard with the issues before the final ‘aha’ moment occurred. But certainly the scientists needed to allow themselves to relax and their minds to become empty and quiet in order for these solutions to arise.
A high proportion of the world’s great works of art were also inspired and conceived during moments of relaxed inactivity. The most recorded song of all time, "Yesterday" by The Beatles, was ‘heard’ by Paul McCartney as he was waking up one morning. The melody was fully formed in his mind, and he went straight to the piano in his bedroom to find the chords to go with it, and later found words to fit the melody. Mozart described how his musical ideas ‘flow best and most abundantly.’ when he was alone ‘traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep… Whence and how they come, I know not, nor can I force them.’ Similarly, Tchaikovsky described how the idea for a composition usually came ‘suddenly and unexpectedly… It takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches and leaves, and finally blossoms.’ Similarly, many writers and poets have spoken of a ‘muse’ or ‘daemon’ which is the source of the creativity, which is beyond their conscious control, and provides them with inspiration.
A New Attitude to Inactivity
All of this illustrates that we have the wrong attitude to ‘doing nothing’. Perhaps we should stop thinking of relaxation and inactivity in such a negative light, and begin to see them as essential – not only for our well-being, but for our creativity and even our productivity.
Great ideas and insights don’t come from thinking or activity – they usually come through us, when we’re sufficiently relaxed. They come when we’re open to them, and thinking and doing usually close us to them.
Therefore progress of any kind – personal, spiritual, or creative development, collective economic or political development – does not lie in more activity, more hard work or longer working hours. If anywhere, it lies in more relaxation, more leisure time, more empty time to do nothing in. As long as we ensure that we fill this free time with being rather than doing, we might find that it transforms us from tired automatons into happier, more creative and innovative beings, with a greater contribution to make to the world.
Steve Taylor PhD is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Making TIme: Why Time Seems to Pass at Different Speeds and How to Control it. www.stevenmtaylor.com