‘I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber,’ Blaise Pascal wrote. When it comes to the challenge of using your four thousand weeks well, the capacity to do nothing is indispensable, because if you can’t bear the discomfort of not acting, you’re far more likely to make poor choices with your time, simply to feel as if you’re acting – choices such as stressfully trying to hurry activities that won’t be rushed or feeling you ought to spend every moment being productive in the service of future goals, thereby postponing fulfilment to a time that never arrives.
Technically, it’s impossible to do nothing at all: as long as you remain alive, you’re always breathing, adopting some physical posture, and so forth. So training yourself to ‘do nothing’ really means training yourself to resist the urge to manipulate your experience, or the people and things in the world around you – to let things be as they are. Young teaches ‘Do Nothing’ meditation, for which the instructions are to simply set a timer, probably only for five or ten minutes at first; sit down in a chair; and then stop trying to do anything. Every time you notice you’re doing something – including thinking, or focusing on your breathing, or anything else – stop doing it. (If you notice you’re criticising yourself inwardly for doing things, well, that’s a thought, too, so stop doing that.) Keep on stopping until the timer goes off. ‘Nothing is harder to do than nothing,’ remarks the author and artist Jenny Odell. But to get better at it is to begin to regain your autonomy – to stop being motivated by the attempt to evade how reality feels here and now, to calm down, and to make better choices with your brief allotment of life.