SIDDHARTHA GAUTAMA LIVED A TROUBLED LIFE. After enjoying twenty-nine years as an insulated, ill-informed Indian Prince, legend has it that he strode from his palace gates to meet his subjects. Driven by an intuition that the limitless material goods his father supplied would offer him no contentment, he sought to experience more of the world, specifically seeking enlightenment itself. Discovering the elderly and the diseased for the first time, the (previously unknown) associated concepts of mortality and degradation caused Siddhartha to vow to surmount these fates through strict asceticism (that is, eschewing the pursuit of pleasure and instead pursuing only spiritual goals).
After denying his father’s offer of the throne, and then pursuing life as a begging mendicant, Siddhartha pursued an understanding of yogic meditation. With his ultimate goal as enlightenment itself, Siddhartha swiftly moved up the ranks of Alama Kalama’s esteem, eventually being asked to be his successor. Declining this, Siddhartha moved onto the school of Uduka Ramaputta where he once again developed with such grace that he was asked to be his successor. Siddhartha declined. His consciousness, though broadened by his mastery of yogic practice, yearned for more. Siddhartha, despite all his efforts, was no more satisfied than during his days a prince. Enlightenment, as ever, remained elusive.
Disheartened, but not relinquishing his pursuit; Siddhartha sought enlightenment once more in the world of extreme austerity and deprivation. Shunning the pleasures of the world, it’s goods and the nourishment of its foods, Siddhartha life was lived to near starvation through a diet of one leaf and one nut per day. Any momentary pleasure was snatched away through the deliberate practice of self-mortification. Eventually, these extreme measures caught up with him and Siddhartha was found half-drowned in a river by a young village girl. Nursed back to health by a milk and jaggery pudding, Siddhartha looked down upon his withered and corpse-like body (indeed, so inhuman that the girl believed him to be a spirit) and began to reflect on what he had achieved, eventually coming to reconsider his path. Casting his memory back to his days as a boy, he remembered a moment of serene bliss and focus when watching his father work a plow. Maybe his goal was closer than he realised, and existed in the simpler acts of living, than the more extreme routes he had been pursuing.
Experienced in the disparate concepts of awakening and asceticism, Siddhartha began to seek a middle ground that existed between the poles of self-indulgence and self-mortification. To the shock, and consequent abandonment of his followers, Siddhartha let go of his strict acts of austerity and came to settle under a broad-leafed, thick-trunked, pipal tree – where he allowed himself to do absolutely nothing. Sat beneath the sprawling fig tree, Siddhartha sought the truth, and after years of effort and pain and starvation, he finally found what he was looking for. It was here that Siddhartha Gautama, now known as the Buddha, found enlightenment.
Or so the story goes.
DESTROYING THE MYTH OF HARD WORK
In our own lives, it’s easy to get lost in the pursuit of what it is we want. Now whilst I’m confident that many of you aren’t looking for ‘enlightenment’ per se, I’m sure all of you are looking to achieve some kind of result that enhances your quality of life. Sex, money, power, fame, independence, health – whatever it is you want, the elements of focus remain the same:
If you want X you have to do Y.
The entire self-help industry hinges on this concept. Countless boardroom slides dance across office screens, bold text headings blaring ‘productivity’, ‘time management’, ‘performance indicators.’ The idea at the heart of the capitalist engine is simple – put in the input, receive the output; the input in this instance being one’s ability to use their allotted time correctly and the output being, usually, money.
This theory stands to reason. I’m sure you’ve often heard the 10,000 hours theory or some celebrity tell you have they’re the hardest worker in the room, or the last person to get off the treadmill – but does this concept of relentless work and effort actually mesh with the human condition?
Called ‘mystical’ by his critics, Rainer Maria Rilke was intensely gaunt, with a wolfish cast and wispy beard. A prolific writer, possessed with an inexhaustible creative instinct Rilke conjured some of the fiercest and most influential writing the German language had ever seen. Through poems, letters and stories Rainer’s work cut a lasting and formidable legacy. Clearly, this was a man of hard graft, and surely so; a glance across his collected works conjures the image of a wild man, hunched in a fury over a journal whittling pencil after pencil into leadless woodchips across torturous days of labour and craft. But is this actually the case?
In Letters on Life, Rainer wrote “I have often wondered whether especially those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spend in the most profound activity. Whether our actions themselves, even if they do not take place until later, are nothing more than the last reverberations of a vast movement that occurs within us during idle days.
In any case, it is very important to be idle with confidence, with devotion, possibly even with joy. The days when even our hands do not stir are so exceptionally quiet that it is hardly possible to raise them without hearing a whole lot.”
Contrary to our theories of effort, it would appear that like the Buddha, Rainer often found what he was looking for when he cast aside trying. However, this idea isn’t some new epiphany. The ancients had long known of breakthroughs in progress arriving in moments of idleness. Modern thinkers too, like Bertrand Russel, espoused the virtues of idleness, and Joyce, in his conception of epiphany goes on to state that they are inadvertent revelations, discovered entirely at random.
By now, I’m sure you’ll agree that the idea ‘if you want X you have to do Y‘ has lost much of its brawn and is in need of a touch-up. After all, hard work without breaking new ground leaves you going in circles.
But that issue extends beyond that. Taking an eye to our cultural reverence of the hard worker, the concept of hard work itself becomes a tricky one. Scanning through the annals of history, the institutionalized idea of ‘hard work’ owes a lot of its origins to serfdom, peasantry, and slave ownership – where a ‘lower class’ of individual worked hard for the benefit (and incidentally, idleness) of a ‘higher class’. Even now you’d be hard-pressed to find an individual who doesn’t think a King should be paid the same wage as a ‘normal man.’ The concept is dirtied further when lifted from slavery and serfdom into the post-industrial revolution, manufacturing age – where hard work was commissioned en-masse to bolster production capabilities of the wealthy industrialists. The difference here is that the hard work was voluntary employment rather than enforced slavery; a step in the right direction, but certainly no gold star. Unmasked, the reverence of hard work carries the echoed reverence the wealthy lords and ladies espoused the, as they called them ‘honest poor.’ A lingering stench, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Looking at the concept on its merit alone, consider the words of Bertrand Russel when he said: ‘the fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were, we should have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare.’ Hard work is not in itself merit.
THE DO NOTHING PARADOX
The human brain is a notorious mess of conflicting impulses and inclinations, and the echoed narratives of iron-willed focus and graft offer little in the way of practical advice. As Rainer discovered, idleness is useful in the pursuit of goals – but like Siddhartha, a middle ground must be discovered.
Andrew Smart, the author of Autopilot is no stranger to the benefits of laziness he writes that “chronic busyness destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, our ability to be social — and it can damage our cardiovascular health”. In fact, science is increasingly discovering that letting your brain do less, actually allows it do more. There are countless studies demonstrating the benefits of meditation, walks in the forest, napping or even warm baths – more interestingly though was a study undertaken by the Harvard School of Business.
Studying the effectiveness of always working hard, clocking in 65 hour work weeks, the results showed that in fact people worked just as hard and were, in fact, more engaged if their hours were reduced and they were allowed to take sporadic time off. Instead of taking the occasional week long holiday (which suffered diminishing returns), it appeared that frequent breaks to the work week were actually far more beneficial.
Laziness it appears is actually quite useful and has often been seen as a sign of success. Former General and ardent opponent of the Nazi regime, the fantastically named Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord once said: ‘I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually, two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent — their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy — they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.’
Similarly, the ancient Confucian Chinese idealized idleness and relaxation, with Gentleman going so far as to grow long tapering fingernails as a demonstration of their comfortable lives. Although, I think we can all do without a resurgence of that look.
The practicality of laziness is vast. Enhancing creativity, health, well-being, and focus, it would appear doing nothing at all isn’t quite the black mark that our inherited slave narratives would have us believe. Giving our brains room to breathe allows them the clarity and composure Hammerstein-Equord spoke of, we need only cast aside the culture of competition and ladder climbing, and find out those ways in which we can let our brain ‘sit around its ass eating Doritos.’
Welcome to your relaxation time. Let this wonderful 80’s classic sooooth you.
ADVANCED TECHNIQUES FOR DOING SWEET FUCK ALL
Procrastination is not relaxation. That’s one of the first things we need to learn. On some level, we’re always neurotic about success, our dreams and the direction of our lives. We berate and hammer our self-esteem about not doing enough, and force ourselves to do more. And in between these bouts of mental self-mortification, we let what remains of our tired intellect to waste across sprawls of Facebook newsfeed, snap chat stories and shallow attention grabbing journalism – a process which only feeds the ever present arbitrator of our work ethic. But throughout all of this noise, we drown out the voice that counts – we ignore the messages of our aching exhausted body, and our tired, worn out mind – the message that’s telling us to do nothing at all. For the love of god, please, just do nothing at all.
But when we’re so used to always doing something, doing nothing can seem like a bit of a challenge. The first step is to realise when you’re overworked and just need a break – a detox of everything. General lethargy, inability to concentrate and an addiction to procrastination – this perfect storm of time wasting is a road sign for you to start wasting your time better. Mercifully, there are simple techniques that require no talent.
Switch off your technology. Aside from increasing your fear of missing out, compounding your jealousy and morphing your ability to concentrate into sludge – technology is on a basic level always keeping your brain occupied with doing something. This makes sense when you’re procrastinating, after all, if you aren’t trawling through Instagram then you should have your hands full with whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing; but if you’re doing meant to be doing nothing, then the technology kind of defeats the point. Let the brain do its own thing, rather than constantly filling it up with a constant barrage of information ordure.
Take a hot bath. Your body needs to relax, and you’ll find the experience of melting into a bath lends itself to a relaxed mind like hand and glove. You’ll also find your joints, muscles, skin, heart, lungs and organs to benefit as well. Throw in some scented candles for some Jungian worship of the Anima and you’ll have quite a full package.
Walk in a forest, or really just anywhere green. Mother nature is the mind’s bagnio, and in rigmarole existence of our concrete wild west, it’s easy to forget to purchase a room. Studies show that taking a stroll through some leafy undergrowth, or taking some time out with your backyard oak has a marked effect of reducing depression, rumination (read: worrying), and has a marked effect on long-term mental health. So in essence, you’d be crazy not to.
The quintessential technique, however, is this: Don’t try and do anything. Don’t make yourself do anything. Let go of the feeling that you have to do anything. I call this the Do Nothing Paradox. Beyond my ramblings about serfdom work ethic and celebrations of Austrian poets, a lot of the motivation behind our work ethic is that we’re worried about not keeping busy. We’re worried about falling behind. Of missing out. Or worst of all, of incurring future, negative consequences. Brains ruminate, it’s what they do. The frontal cortex is literally designed to do this. But a hallmark of a healthy mind is the relationship we have between the ruminations and our actions, and our feelings towards ourselves. This shapes the gulf between self-esteem and neuroticism. When we can’t allow ourselves to relax – what does that say about us? Unless some impending deadline approaches, does this not perhaps indicate that our relationship with work is unhealthy, and in turn, that the way we judge ourselves, as a result, is damaging?
After all, a goals worth must be taken stock if it is in itself a damaging pursuit. The unexamined scramble is best left for fools.
So next time your own quest for achievement meets roadblock or plateau – consider perhaps that nothing at all might be the wisest recourse. Relinquish the idea of self-control, and let your brain recline under the feathered fan. With so much of your personal development focused on doing something, always taking an action, always achieving – take the time to do nothing.
And maybe like Siddhartha, you’ll find what you were looking for.