[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?
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
This website and the newsletter (fuzzy notes) have been a labour of love. While they are free to access (and will continue to be free), they are not free to create. I spend significant time researching, writing, and proofing every article I publish here, apart from all the logistical aspects of buying and managing the domain and hosting plans. Each article is written meticulously to help fellow readers (such as yourself) get the best knowledge, which is also witty and articulate in this outlook. You may reach out to me at [email protected] (and tell me what you liked about the essay you may have just read or if you want me to write on anything you wish to read). If you have benefitted from reading articles on my website and the newsletter, consider buying me a coffee (as a token of love and appreciation ♥). If you cannot do so now, it’s okay! (understandably, each of us has our problems to deal with every day.) You can still do something else: share the article with someone who may like it.