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(Published: 2007-09-01)

I’ve always been a hard worker, and as such, not very good at doing Nothing. But that’s changing. I’m happy to say that I have learned to enjoy a quiet moment of sheer pleasure now and again, doing absolutely Nothing. I don’t do it that often. ("Nothing," that is.) But when I do, I really know how to enjoy it.

Labor Day is a good day to consider working hard versus "doing Nothing." The federal holiday was organized by labor union leaders and made official in 1894. Its original purpose was to give workers a holiday between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. The way I see it, this end-of-summer holiday qualifies as something of a paradox, a vacation day that celebrates work.

"Doing nothing" probably sounds like an unforgivable, lazy failing to most. We’re taught at an early age that only through hard work and relentless striving will we reach our goals and achieve success. It’s assumed that once we’ve achieved that success, finding time to enjoy it won’t be that difficult. But we seldom seem to get to that place. Charles Handy called it "the hedonic treadmill." It’s the idea that once we’ve gotten what we want, we don’t want it anymore, because we have it. Then, we find something else that we want. The harder we work, the more we get, the more we want, the harder we have to work, and so the treadmill goes.

We certainly have the ‘hard work’ part down pat. tells us that as Americans, we put in longer hours on the job now than we did in the 1950’s, despite those predictions that by this century we’d be living a life of leisure. Today, thanks to technology, we’re packing more than ever into our 24/7 lifestyles. We wear the long hours we put in on the job like a badge of honor.

The distinction between not working and "doing Nothing" was clarified when I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller "Eat. Pray. Love." The author’s self-healing journey takes her through three cultures in pursuit of personal fulfillment. She indulges in pleasure in Italy, where she notes how the hardworking Italians, (especially the "braccianti" --the long-suffering laborers) have mastered “it bel far niente”—the beauty of doing Nothing.

Americans, she says, seem to be happier and more fulfilled in their offices than they do in their own homes. As a result, the American stereotype is an overstressed executive who goes on vacation, but cannot relax. She makes a distinction between entertainment and pleasure, which I think is very valid. She comments that we spend billions amusing and entertaining ourselves (think sporting events, theme parks, and all those toys) but that we seem to have an "inability to relax into sheer pleasure."

Does this apply to you? Think about it this way. In the Age of the Overwhelmed, have you ever experienced the mini-euphoria of a canceled appointment? What do you do with the unexpected luxury of a "free" hour? If you used it to get more work done, it’s time to take a lesson in doing Nothing.

The next time the opportunity presents itself, try taking a deep breath. Tune in to how you FEEL. Take time to just BE. Think about doing Nothing. It’s harder than you think, but worth the effort.

I discovered that for myself in yoga class. Savasana, or corpse pose, is done at the end of every practice. The idea is to surrender yourself utterly to the ground and lie relaxed but alert to the quieting vibrations of your body. These last few relaxing minutes are both refreshing and invigorating. Savasana is a precursor to meditation, which is the ultimate form of doing Nothing. You’re not even supposed to think. If your mind wonders ahead to what you have to do next, you just bring it back to focus on your breath, and doing Nothing.

If you think that sounds silly, remember this. The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it. That's when you need it most.

Eat. Pray. Love.


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