Friday, April 29, 2016

The Art Of Doing Nothing

"What do you do all day?"  This is a common question cruisers get asked by non-cruisers.  The answer varies.  As I have mentioned before, in this life, each day is a surprising adventure waiting to unfold whether it's hiking to a waterfall or spending the day fixing a suddenly failed bilge pump, battery charger, rebuilding the the head, etc.  I have also told you before that one thing takes all day;  provisioning, getting cash, finding working and strong internet - all day.  The smartass answer is "whatever we want."

However there is another answer.  Nothing.  "What do you do all day?"  Sometimes nothing.  At least nothing by most societal standards.  Yes we get up, move around, feed ourselves, check on the boat's overall status, and talk to one and other but sometimes not much else.  Some days we don't even leave the boat.  Some days we read all day.  By normal, land people standards, those days we don't do much.  

The Art of Doing Nothing may sound easy but it's not.  Most of us are conditioned to do something.  In today's fast paced world, we are actually trained and expected to do MANY somethings.  Multi tasking is a given and a must whether it's in our personal life or on the job.  For most of us, this has been the way we are since we can remember.  Society expects it.  Each new generation takes multi tasking to a new, higher level.

But occasionally there are spurts of push back.  Articles and studies pop up now and then suggesting too much multi tasking is bad.  Divided focus is less focus on each item.  ADHD, ADH, Ridilin, etc were not common terms when I was growing up.  However the focus on these has died back down in recent years. 

The cruising life affords us the luxury of "Doing Nothing". But it's not that easy.  How does one alter a way of life (fast paced, multi tasking, go-go-go) that is ingrained in us from an early age?  It takes practice.  No, really.  One challenge is the guilt.  Have you ever spent a complete Saturday or Sunday doing "nothing". Okay, you probably sat on the couch watching tv the whole day but when it was over, you would report that you "did nothing all day."  How did you feel?  Guilty for " doing nothing?"  Have you ever done that on a week day (gasps)?  Have you taking a day off and done nothing?  Of course not!  If you take a day off, you have a purpose, a goal, a list.  No, doing nothing is rare and usually involves a little bit of a guilty feeling afterward.  

There are a few disciplines/religions that train followers to "do nothing" to speak (day long prayer, meditation, chanting, yoga)  But these take training.  A couple of my friends meditate or have in the past.  Apparently it isn't easy.  It takes lot of practice to learn to clear your mind.  I have on occasion attended a yoga class or two.  At some point during the class we are suppose to clear our mind.  I think this is done in every yoga class.  I can never do it.  I always fight it from the moment it's mentioned "Now clear your mind.  Let go of all the thoughts in your head."  This immediately gets my mind racing on things I need to do and then things I want to do, then funny things, then weird things.  It's hopeless and it always made me feel like a failure at yoga.  Not only am I not flexible enough for most of the downward- tree- plank- rock the baby poses... but I can't even clear my mind.  Sheesh.  However, since cruising and learning to "do nothing", I can now do yoga and just enjoy it.  There are thoughts rattling around in my head but I am relaxed and enjoying the breathing, stretching, strengthening as best I can, to my level.  When the tape says "clear your head" and mine is instead stuffed full of thoughts, who cares.  It usually makes me smile a bit.  Beside I have always been a bit of a rule breaker, why would yoga be different.  Ha!

My point is "Doing Nothing" takes training too.  I would say that freeing yourself from the guilt is step one.  This is a big one.  Next is just being in the moment/day of doing nothing.  Fighting the urge to jump up and do something.  Allowing it, accepting it.  Part of this is learning to sit quietly with yourself.  In the last few seasons of HBO's Boardwalk Empire  Nucky Thompson said several times that he thought the true judgment of a man is how well he can just sit quietly in a room by himself.  I know this is a tv character quote but think about it.  Can YOU sit quietly in a room by yourself?  And not for a few mins but for an extended period of time?  Say 15 mins.  Can you?  I am sorry but I think most of you would fail.  Some of you my dear friends would fail on an epic level, lasting only a few mins.  You know who you are!

Actually last summer while listening to NPR, I heard about an interesting study out of University of Virginia along these lines.  As I recall, volunteers were put in an empty room by themselves.  They were wired up to a device that would give a small but painful electric shock when pushed.  The volunteers were shown this button, how it works and even tested it to get a feel for the shock/pain  Then they were asked to just sit quietly in the room by themselves for 15 mins.  No cell phone, no texting, no games, no writing, no sleeping.  Just sit.  There were no instructions on the shock button.  It was just there.  They should just sit alone by themselves with only their thoughts.  The researchers wanted to see if people could do that.  It turns out a huge number couldn't.  In fact most couldn't.  The bulk of the people started pushing the shock button just to do something even though they knew it would give them a shock.  The urge to do something vs not be alone with themselves was stronger than their urge to prevent pain!  Think about that.  Sit quietly or give yourself pain and most pick the pain.  Wow!  Many pushed it multiple times.  Even after a painful shock, some still couldn't finish out the session by just sitting with themselves.  They had to do something.  They had to shock themselves again.  Double wow!  The study found that men overwhelming pushed the button more than women.  One guy pushed it 190 times in a 15 min time frame!  Many subjects also admitted to sneaking a look at their cell phones or cheating another way vs sitting quietly.  

One of the benefits (for us) of this cruising life is that we have learned the Art of Doing Nothing.  We can sit in the cockpit for several hours just watching the anchorage and or sea, allowing ourselves the opportunity to just be, to think, to see what happens next.  And maybe it's more nothing and that is ok.  We can spend an entire day reading and napping and be ok with that too.  However it is still such a new sensation after years of multi tasking -go hard, that it feels like a luxury but that is ok as well.


  1. You've articulated it well. This is the perfect example of my claim that we need to remember that we're human BEings, not human DOings!

  2. Fun read. I find it easy to do nothing physically. Put the headphones in and listen to some tunes for an hr while staring out at the anchorage is a common thing for me. Sit and read a book for most of the day is easy. Getting my brain to do nothing is different. Too much nonsense going on in there.