Plants and animals are really good at it. But somewhere along the way we forgot how to practice the lost art of stillness.
All life-forms require periods of rest to reset and restore their natural processes. In winter plants pull energy back into their cores and wait for the cold to pass. Animals balance periods of intense exertion with periods of retreat and repose. Human beings, on the other hand, never stop engaging in a dangerous and debilitating experiment–living without rest.
Sure we sleep at night. But not long enough. Most Americans are sleep-deprived. The results are devastating. When you are sleep-deprived you crave more fattening and sugar-laden food, hence gaining weight. Your risk for diabetes spikes. Then your sex drive plummets. Wounds and injuries take longer to heal, which is bad timing because you are far more likely to be hurt or injured. You look older. You feel older. You have trouble thinking and concentrating. Your mood plummets leaving you prone to anxiety, paranoia, and depression. Your memory falters. Your immune system weakens. And to make matters worse, all of this occurs simultaneously compounding your misery. Who knew pillow time was so life-saving. Literally.
And this: 20% of the 35,000 Americans who die every year in auto accidents are killed by sleep-deprived drivers. That’s 20 people slaughtered every day because someone didn’t get enough sleep.
But it goes beyond that. At heart, sleep deprivation is a symptom, not a cause. It is a symptom of a delusion–the delusion that my self-worth is tied to my work-output; the idea that my value as a human being is measured by how busy I am. This lie drives us like a lash into feverish and often futile activity–activity for activity’s sake. I’m not sure what we’re running from, or toward for that matter. But I do know this: we have forgotten the virtues of idleness.
To give ourselves over to idleness seems a sin. At least that’s the message we’ve received from the dominant culture. Let’s consider the alternative. What would happen if we embraced periods of absolutely unstructured, free-form idleness? Two hundred years ago the British Romantic poet William Wordsworth wondered the same thing. He explored the idea in this beautiful paean to idleness called “To My Sister.”
It is the first mild day of March:
Each minute sweeter than before
The redbreast sings from the tall larch
That stands beside our door.
There is a blessing in the air,
Which seems a sense of joy to yield
To the bare trees, and mountains bare,
And grass in the green field.
My sister! (’tis a wish of mine)
Now that our morning meal is done,
Make haste, your morning task resign;
Come forth and feel the sun.
Edward will come with you; –and, pray,
Put on with speed your woodland dress;
And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.
No joyless forms shall regulate
Our living calendar:
We from to-day, my Friend, will date
The opening of the year.
Love, now a universal birth,
From heart to heart is stealing,
From earth to man, from man to earth:
–It is the hour of feeling.
One moment now may give us more
Than years of toiling reason:
Our minds shall drink at every pore
The spirit of the season.
Some silent laws our hearts will make,
Which they shall long obey:
We for the year to come may take
Our temper from to-day.
And from the blessed power that rolls
About, below, above,
We’ll frame the measure of our souls:
They shall be tuned to love.
Then come, my Sister! come, I pray,
With speed put on your woodland dress;
And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.
When you scratch beneath the surface of this poem you find the reason idleness matters: it is only in a state of idleness that our soul opens up to the Universal Soul. We are restored, fully, to our divine nature and reconnected to the divine source coursing through all things only when we stop this ceaseless activity and production. Sure, work and industry matter, obviously. This isn’t an either/or consideration. We’re talking about balance. Beautiful, sweet, restorative idleness sustains us every bit as much as our work does–one perishes without the other.
My parents were born in the 1920s. They grew up in a world without television, commercial air travel, telephones, computers, or the internet. They were better at idleness than I am. When I was a boy growing up in Ventura, we would often drive up the Maricopa Highway and stop alongside the North Fork of Matilija Creek just outside Ojai to spend the day doing nothing. Just being. Letting the sound of the falling water wash away all of the busyness of the week. Opening. Releasing. Reorienting to the sacred rhythms of the natural order–our own natural order. Feeling the sun on our skin. Tracing the dappled shadows of sycamore and oak arching over the boulders, red-tailed hawks and condors spiraling in the cerulean blue above. The quiet thrum of wind through the grasses and the ghosts of Chumash keeping vigil in this chaparral cathedral under the warm dome of midday. You know, all of the important things you miss when you are busy.
The ancient art of meditation is the intentional practice of idleness and stillness. In any moment, wherever we are, it is possible–in fact it is necessary–for us to shift into stillness and slip beneath the incessant waves of the thought stream to enter fully into this now moment, as it actually is, without judgment or conceptual clouding. It’s what our cat spends most of his life doing. It’s what trees do all the time. Stillness is the warp and woof of life. When we banish it from our lives, we are not yet fully, really alive. If we listen closely we are called, each of us, to our sacred source at the heart of every moment, revealed only in the lost art of stillness.
Peter Bolland is a teacher, writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Join his mailing list at www.peterbolland.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.