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How to Be Idle and Blessed

"Diligent indolence" can be a productive way to do nothing.

The Virginia coast sun wilts the air here in Cape Charles, and everything - the tongue, the mind, the pace - slows down. My wife, baby daughter, and I are vacationing although the industrious American in me wants to claim I'm researching wonder. And therein is a paradox of being an American: On one hand, I, we, don't know how to vacation, relax, do nothing and do nothing well. We vacation less than our grandparents' generation as we're set on getting to heaven by being busy, but busyness sends wonder scurrying. On the other hand, when we do vacation some of us vacate, zone out, and escape to Margaritaville.

Neither Jimmy Buffet-style "escapades" nor busy buzz usually afford the mind the chance to arrive at a soft, blank space that, at the moment, I can only compare to an ocean horizon. I'm speaking of that subtle state when we can hear nuances hover on the brink of awareness, intuitions that might grant us deep insight into creative problems - whether the problem is what you're going to do with the next chapter in your novel or the next chapter of your life. We might do well to learn, as Mary Oliver says, "how to be idle and blessed."

But how? How might we quiet the mind with delight, pleasure, and joy in the name of (gulp) productive idleness? Here are some tips taken from the shores of Cape Charles.

Revise your attitude toward idleness. As if to defy the "slacker" label given my generation, in my twenties I prided myself on outworking my colleagues and scoffed at all-things recreational. A hackey-sack or hammock, a surfboard or yacht were all part of the nation's intellectual albatross.

Many of my clients bemoan that they work harder and longer for less and less gratification. Rest comes only as exhaustion. But when I suggest they be idle, they squirm and check the clock. If idleness isn't exactly the devil's playground, they seem to think it's certainly the poor boy's parking lot.

But what about creative idleness? "It is in our idleness," Virginia Woolf writes, "in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top." Woolf understood idleness's value as did Thoreau ("Time is but the stream I go a-fishin' in") to let a person swim in the creative mind's waves.

What's good for creativity can be good for existential flux. Mark Slouka argued in Harper's Magazine (2004) that idleness is crucial for a healthy democracy. It does so, Slouka claims, "by allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it."

So, maybe John Keats coined it best when in 1818 he wrote a friend about the joys of spending a day in full creative immersion. He called this state "diligent indolence."

Walk without why. As a boy, I used to walk for hours to get lost and then to try to find my way back home. It seems as good a metaphor as any for how I've lived my adult life. A writer-client says she must walk as part of her writing process. "Six miles," she tells me, "then I'm somewhere deep." Poet Olga Broumas told me the same thing. She starts walking in the evening and won't return home until the wee hours. O'Keeffe used to wander the prairies in Canyon, Texas in the days when a woman walking without why was near-scandalous. Try it. Set off one Saturday afternoon, sneakers to the pavement, keep your eyes down so you won't be peering for landmarks to act as breadcrumbs, and just be in the rhythm of step and breath and thought and sense. Call it a wonder walk. So far on my walks in Cape Charles, I've come across an abandoned church, a kid who knows the names of waves, and some vague sense of where I'm heading in the next year.

Keep a nuance notebook. Sit on a porch and stare long enough at the white heat, and you're bound to notice stray thoughts, the mind's goldfish, dart across the screen of your awareness. At least I have. My nuance notebook is filled with random descriptions of dream images, inklings of how my life might unfold in the next few years, and random diagrams related to the workshops I imagine teaching. In the course of a week, I have pages to show for my idleness.

Write your contact info. in the nuance notebook. A guy in Cape Charles calls my cell phone. Says his neighbor found my notebook. Says his friend is, well, "not all there since he fell off the back of a truck a few years ago." I track down his neighbor and, sure enough, he's about five degrees south of most of us. Talked my ear off. Said he's always on the lookout for odd things and saw my book and thought it was a VCR tape. "Just a darned notebook," he said. I chuckled when I imagined him looking at pages with phrases like "dharma dreams" etched on them. Okay, this is a tangent, but it suggests how you must go with the flow if you want to be idle and blessed. And I don't recommend falling off a truck as a way to notice the small things.

Give yourself an outdoor project that brings you pleasure. Our physicality shapes our psychology. (See Shaun Gallagher's How the Body Shapes the Mind, Oxford UP, 2005 or Lakoff and Johnson's Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999 for a primer.) So expand your mind by expanding the range of your senses. When I'm at home, I spend many evenings tending to berry bushes and fruit trees in a small orchard I've shaped. Inevitably, while I'm pruning a blackberry stem or hauling a bucket of water from the pond, I hear the voice of a character in one of my short stories or an image crawls into my awareness and onto the page later that night. Faulkner claims he wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks while working 12-hour shifts of manual labor. Herbert Benson describes how several successful and creative people prime their minds with deliberate activity and then engage their bodies in something pleasurable like gardening or sawing. Then flashes come. He calls this process The Break-Out Principle. An outdoor project also can bring you immediate pleasure and long-term gratification - a powerful combo shown to be part of happy people's daily regime.

Unplug for a day. After the second day at Cape Charles of not being online, my mind felt flat and easy like the ocean. For a moment here and there, I'd stop thinking. I felt sort of dumb and under-stimulated in a good way. Steven Pinker recently wrote a Times Op-Ed countering claims about digital technology's negative effects on the mind. Power Point and Twitter and so forth, he says, make us smarter. Fine. I just know that when my face doesn't see an Internet screen for a couple of days, my mind opens to other imaginative realms ignored when scurrying for information online.

Form a Big Sky Club. When I was the visiting scholar at an all-boy's prep academy this winter, I led the high school boys through a wonder walk in the name of being idle and blessed. Later that afternoon, I had a chat with the dean. "Idle and blessed?" he mused, eyebrows raised, bow tie turned. He appreciated the idea once I mentioned Thoreau, but he knew the school could not tout in their mission statement, "We build young men's virtue, intellect, and idleness." Still, good-natured as he was, he told me how several years ago three boys came to him with an idea for a new club. "The Big Sky Club," they called it. Their activity would be to meet each week on the courtyard lawn, prostate themselves on the grass, and gaze at the sky. The dean approved it. Try it. Begin with a membership of one. Then invite a friend or two or three over. Set up your own rules for chatter or not. Hammocks, it turns out, have value.

Let a baby fall asleep in your arms. If you don't have a baby of your own, borrow one. A well-tempered, old cat can suffice, too. My baby girl loves the bay. But one day this week, she got tuckered out on the beach and started wailing. I lifted her, walked along the ocean's edge, and with breeze and breath lulled her to sleep. I returned beneath our umbrella, sat next to my wife, and for half an hour or more, my baby breathing against my chest, just gazed at the horizon, tasted the wind, and knew that much of my dharma weighed all of twenty pounds. There was no better moment of being idle and blessed than that.

Join the conversation. Let us know how you practice being idle and blessed.

See you in the woods.

Jeffrey Davis
author, The Journey from the Center to the Page
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