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philosophy of doing nothing

The Philosophy of Doing Nothing

[This essay deals with doing nothing as a philosophical stance, its virtues and woes.]

In today’s technocratic world, control is the highest virtue. We are urged to control our routine, our surroundings, our peers and family, our relationships, our mobile phones, our data—and at last, even ourselves. Because our society sustains control, we are always running as fast as we can, either to escape control or, at times, to embrace control.

As a result, we are trying to look for ways to be busy—sometimes even for the sake of it. We feel we are not doing enough if we are not busy enough. Beneath this urge to be busy, we are constantly haunted by a scenario that we are left behind in our society. Therefore, we are always doing something in our quest to catch up with society.

There is a new market for efficiency. There are zillions of books on productivity.

A whole new generation industry of YouTubers deals with “how to make friends”, “how to become rich at 21”, “how to increase productivity”, “how to read books without really reading them”, “how to make a girlfriend in 21 days”, “how to live like Haruki Murakami”, etc.

You often wonder, am I not doing enough? Am I not doing it right? Am I lazing all day while Sharmaji ka Beta (Sharma Uncle’s Son) is prepping for GRE? Or am I not reading enough for the Civil Services Exam?

doing nothing
Doing nothing, just going to the beach! | Photo by Felipe Guandelini on Unsplash

Underneath all these impeding everyday quibbles of not doing enough lies a tinch of “GUILT”. We feel guilty about doing nothing. (On a lighter note, Friedrich Nietzsche may have been right when he noted that “guilt is an invention of the weak” in his discussion on morality in The Genealogy of Morals.)

We have, as a society, internalised doing nothing as a vice. Therefore, the mere thought of “doing nothing” causes us to feel anguish.

What if I were to say “doing nothing” is an important virtue? French Philosopher Blaise Pascal once remarked: “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. As opposed to the control-laden society, Taoism focuses on letting things go.

At first, letting things go may seem to accept one’s weakness. But it is a smart strategy. A simplistic explanation, and something acceptable to us, about letting things go is freeing yourself of the burdens you feel on an everyday basis. Non-thinking about what may happen could be a better strategy for a better lifestyle.

doing nothing
Photo by Julian Hochgesang on Unsplash

Let’s take the example of Emil Cioran, who lived his life doing nothing. The Romanian Philosopher had never really had a job, except for one year of a stint as a high-school philosophy teacher in his hometown. Moving to Paris in 1937, Cioran writes, it was “the only city in the world where you could be poor without being ashamed of it, without complications, without dramas”.

Cioran lived on others’ kindness: wearing their clothes and eating their food in exchange for some wit and philosophy. He learned philosophy less by attending college and more by talking to people—beggars, pimps, sex workers and poor street-dwellers on the streets of Paris. In The Book of Delusions, Emil Cioran writes:

I don’t understand why we must do things in this world, why must we have friends, aspirations, hopes and dreams. Wouldn’t it be better to retreat to a faraway corner of the world, where all its noise and complications would be heard no more? Then we could renounce culture and ambitions; we would lose everything and gain nothing; for what is there to be gained from this world?

Cioran’s lifestyle may sometimes seem difficult for an average person—without ambitions, distractions, fame and buzz around us. Doing nothing is not all that easy, contrary to what we may have believed. It takes a life out of you when you decide to do nothing. That is why a 10-day vipassana meditation (a meditation technique in India that requires you to meditate in prison-like rooms without uttering a single word out of your mouth, without mobile phones, without all other-humanly connections) eats you alive.

doing nothing wu wei
Wu Wei in Chinese Script

In Taoism, the term wu wei (無為 in Chinese) refers to “doing nothing” or, as some claim, “non-action”, “effortless action”. It merely means that we should not act against nature. In essence, it is to allow nature takes its own course. It is a kind of doing in which you do nothing.

For example, as Lao Tsu, the proponent of Taoism, put it: “mastery of the world is achieved by letting things take their natural course. You cannot master the world by changing the natural way.”

In Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu writes:

The Sage is occupied with the unspoken,
And acts without effort,
Teaching without verbosity,
Producing without possessing,
Creating without regards for result,
Claiming nothing,
The Sage has nothing to lose.

Rather than putting effort into things, “doing nothing” refers to being as flexible as bamboo, which bends according to the wind direction. It is about being conscious of our surroundings—and allowing nature its agency.

“Doing nothing” further was a guidebook to rulers in Eastern societies, such as China. For example, Taoism compares governing a state to frying a fish, which is to be balanced. If you fry too much, the taste of the fish is compromised.

When a government is too intrusive, people rebel. Therefore, governance should be minimal. In essence, doing nothing means letting things happen on their own. And then, you would know that the world will govern itself.

The use of force will only hinder its progress, according to the philosophers of doing nothing. Instead of wanting to do things, this one time, do nothing.

In Italian, too, there is a saying, la dolce far niente, which means “the sweetness of doing nothing”. This kind of “doing nothing” is an event in itself.

We no longer have to race towards eternity. In the desire to catch up with the world, we have forgotten to be happy–in idleness. There is a need for relaxation–a la dolce far niente kind. Maybe it is okay to sit and laze all day. Maybe it is also enjoy doing that over again.

Allow your life to flow as it deems fit—giving agency to your external environment. All our problems today may be because we do things—and many things, with no necessity.

As today’s world gets preoccupied with mental health, social trauma, and lifestyle problems, turning to the philosophy of “doing nothing” may help us live well.


Cover Photo by Daniel Mingook Kim on Unsplash


Suggested Readings:

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Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu.

Buy the book on Amazon

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The Trouble With Being Born by Emil Cioran.

Buy the book on Amazon


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