Quick, look busy!

Quick, look busy!

Stefan Sagmeister’s TedTalk, The power of time off, blew my mind back in 2009. In the seventeen-and-a-half-minute talk, Sagmeister explained why he takes a sabbatical from work every seven years. His goal is to intersperse five of his retirement years into his work and career lifetime so he can keep creating, generating new ideas, and staying in love with the work he has chosen to do.

There is a sweet abundance in finding ourselves idle. As this quote from Mark Soulka’s Quitting the Paint Factory reminds us:

“Idleness is not just a psychological necessity. It allows us time to figure out who we are and what we believe and consider what is unjust and what we might do about it, precisely what makes idle­ness dangerous. All manner of things can grow out of that fallow soil. Not for nothing did our mothers grow suspicious when we had “too much time on our hands.” They knew we might be up to something. And not for nothing did we whisper to each other when we were up to something, “Quick, look busy.”

Soulka’s essay explores the cultural, social, and political implications of a mind kept busy. Yet there is also richness in understanding what “idleness” does for the brain and body.

Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson enthralls me. In discussing the science behind meditation's effects on the mind, brain, and body, Goleman and Davidson point out that when we are doing nothing, there are brain regions that are highly activated. The authors cite valuable brain research by Marcus Raichle that shows that when we are working at a mental challenge or a demanding cognitive task, the brain's default mode network, a structure of brain areas that include the midline of the prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the post cingulate cortex (PCC) quiets as the parts of the brain responsible for the mental task at hand does its job. When the brain is “doing nothing,” chilling out, being idle - however you would like to phrase it -  the default mode network ramps up.

Scientists believe that the default mode network is most active when we “might be daydreaming, recalling memories, envisioning the future, monitoring the environment, thinking about the intentions of others, and so on—all things that we often do when we find ourselves just "thinking" without any explicit goal of thinking in mind.” This tendency to functional default benefits us in creativity and problem-solving, as Beaty et al. observe in this research study

Goleman and Davidson point to something that meditation practitioners are all too familiar with -  that our default mode tends toward stories of “I” and “me.” “With nothing else to capture our attention,” Goleman and Davidson write, “our mind wanders, very often, to what’s troubling us - a root cause of everyday angst.” 

No wonder we dedicate so much of our time to being busy! Slowing down, pausing, and stopping momentarily to let the mind wander has become a minefield of fearful, anxious, and depressed thoughts and emotions.

If you are one of the many people out there who keeps busy to avoid your mind wandering, here are three things you can do right now that will help you shift your outlook to lovingly embracing downtime and the resurgence of creativity, new ideas, and the sense of purpose it brings.

#1. Step out of the self. The default mode network can be easily hijacked by thinking about the past and future, social evaluations, theories of the self, emotions, thoughts, and even sensations of pain. Mindfulness meditation practices teach you how to step out of the “selfing” so you can let go of thoughts, emotions, and impulses and see them as passing events. Focused attention practices, awareness of thought practices, and imagery practices like the ‘Eye of the Hurricane” and the “Mountain Meditation” practice can help train the brain’s default mode network to support your ability to let go of ruminations. You can learn these techniques in our Mindfulness Retreats, Courses, or Workshops.

#2. Waste time wisely. Instead of seeing downtime as an opportunity to do nothing or get more sleep, consider the value of rest. Rest is most valuable and beneficial when it allows you to unwind (i.e. unplug from your usual patterns of mental activity), nourish (i.e. build your body up with food and non-food sources of nourishment like time in nature, movement, and connections with others), and rebuild (i.e. change the state of your cognitive or behavioural patterns). There are many conversations about the seven types of rest every person needs. Remember that these forms of rest are not mutually exclusive. For example, creative rest allows for spiritual, physical, mental, and social rest. Likewise, any form of rest will create conditions for the body to be more receptive to other forms of rest, such as sleep. Our Creative Rest Retreats emphasize a multidimensional approach to rest.

#3. Don’t go it alone. Everything works better with support. Mindfulness, creative rest, and physical rest practices like going for a walk or eating more nutritiously are all habits you can develop once you have a plan, develop the practice, and get meaningful support. It is easy to enroll in a course or program, do well during the program, and then have everything fall to pieces when the interaction ends. Instead of an overpriced vacation-style retreat that you can only treat yourself to once a year, consider doing more accessible weekly or monthly activities such as in-person or online learning and practice, attending recurring sessions, and having regular accountability check-ins that will help you stay on track as you develop the habit of wise rest. The Reyou Community offers this and much more for monthly or annual subscribers.

The bottom line:

Rest is integral to our mental wellness, well-being, and personal growth. The dogma of idleness being the devil’s work is unhelpful as we strive to solve problems, generate new ideas, and maintain a healthy outlook on life. 

Instead of being quick to show your busyness, try to embrace idleness and boredom by putting your mind in a state of rest. Embracing different types of rest, stepping out of “selfing” patterns, and finding a suitable place for beneficial practice and support are excellent ways to waste time productively.

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