Letting Nothing Happen

It was B’s idea to take our coffee onto the back deck, bring some blankets along, and just listen to the birds singing. It’s sunny in the morning now, but still brisk. The birds are busy. Cardinals, Blue Jays, Juncos, House Sparrows, Mourning Doves, Downy Woodpeckers, Starlings and Grackles. Nuthatches, Robins, Crows. Building nests. Preening for mates. Finding food. Squabbling with squirrels.

It takes a few minutes to tune in, sitting there, or to tune out maybe, to get whatever little bubble you’ve been living in to pop. And then it all floods in. You become aware of how busy the world is beyond the end of your nose, how bright and noisy.

There is a book worth reading, How to Do Nothing; Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell, that goes deep on this subject. Marketed as a sort of cutesy pop-Zen pamphlet, or a self-help book, what is actually between the covers is a deep meditation on what it means to pay attention to something or to pay attention to everything actually. More than explaining how to do nothing, she demonstrates the deep value of doing nothing.

But putting ‘doing’ and ‘nothing’ together like that creates a bit of a paradox. What is the act of not-acting? Is doing nothing like meditating? Yeah. I think it is. But meditation will be beyond many people for all the reasons. Obviously, you don’t have to sit cross-legged on a cushion focused on your breath to reclaim some level of control of your conscious state. You just have to escape the context of directed thinking and allow your mind to go where it will. Doing that outside, where your responsibilities are fewer, helps.

Even if your mind is still full of ideas. That’s ok. Those are your ideas, not the ones you’ve been made to consider by someone looking to separate you from a few dollars, or even just borrowing your attention for some period of time for their own ends.

Doing nothing is the process of letting your mind re-engage with the world, letting your attention expand to take in the largest possible context, letting in other people and new ideas. Doing nothing is a detox from the very specific things we are asked (actually coerced) to pay attention to on-line. Doing nothing washes out all the somethings planted in our heads without our permission.

So B and I sit on the deck drinking coffee, our necks craned to see what birds are perched in the dead tree. Our heads saw back and forth like we were at a tennis match, watching them swoop in and out of the yard. We listen, trying to tease apart their songs, separate them from one another, so we can recognize them when we walk in the woods, or even just lay in bed.

It’s not necessarily birds that show the way out. It could be watching the grass grow or the clouds drift by. It could be sitting cross-legged on a cushion focused on your breath.

What I really like about this book was its recognition that we live in the present day. It’s not practical to shut all of the influences of on-line living out. We have to be engaged, on some level, digitally. But developing a practice of doing nothing can provide balance, sanity, and a bit more intention, not to mention growing our attention span for the things we really do want to pay attention to.