Do nothing, on purpose
Due to a convergence of my own absent-mindedness and the byzantine health insurance regulations we have here in the U.S., I recently found myself at a massive medical facility without a working phone and absolutely nothing to do for a full hour.
It was glorious.
Here’s how it happened and why I’ve been trying to repeat the experience ever since.
I went to said massive medical facility to get an X-ray for a minor injury I’m dealing with. When I arrived, a friendly receptionist explained that I couldn’t be seen because she didn’t have an X-ray order from my doctor. Without an order, my insurance wouldn’t cover any portion of the visit, making the X-ray insanely expensive instead of just annoyingly expensive.
It was just my luck that I arrived right at noon when my own doctor’s office closed for lunch.
“I’ll call them back when they open in an hour if you want to wait,” the receptionist said.
I did not want to wait, but what choice did I have?
Slumped in a waiting room chair, I habitually reached for my phone when, to my horror, I realized the battery was dead. I had vacuumed my car earlier that day and forgot to put my charger back in when I was finished.
I checked my watch. 12:04.
Fifty-six minutes to go.
As I sat there in the waiting room trying my best to tune out the television blaring HGTV (why is it always HGTV?), a creeping unease set in. The thought of doing nothing for an hour was unbearable. There were people I needed to get back to, tasks I needed to complete, things I needed to buy.
But as I confronted the chasm of time and space before me, I began to notice a shift in my perspective.
Faced with no other option, I started to pay closer attention to my surroundings, observing the comings and goings of patients and staff. I had a pleasant, non-Zoom conversation with another human. I read a longform magazine article. I took a walk across the facility grounds and stumbled upon a lake brimming with ducks that was shockingly more picturesque than any office park lake ought to be.
Gradually, my anxiety gave way to a sense of calm curiosity. Thoughts and ideas bubbled to the surface of my awareness, unencumbered by the usual barrage of stimuli.
When it was finally time to get my X-ray I was disappointed, not relieved.
This is not a critique of the smartphone. Although not having one undoubtedly facilitated a quicker transition into a relaxed state, what I was truly benefiting from was a forced period of complete non-action. In this instance it was by chance, but the experience made me realize it's something worth seeking out.
Intentional non-action, known as wu wei in Taoist philosophy, is the art of doing nothing on purpose. The concept emphasizes the significance of letting things follow their natural course and refraining from unnecessary interference. Crucially, wu wei should not be mistaken for laziness, which implies disinterest or lack of motivation.
The benefits of embracing intentional non-action have been well documented. Studies have shown that regular periods of quiet reflection can reduce stress, increase creativity, improve decision making, and even boost overall well-being. And it doesn't have to be complicated—simply taking a few minutes each day to sit quietly, without an agenda, can yield remarkable results.
In the weeks that followed my unexpected hour of inaction, I’ve begun to experiment with different ways of incorporating wu wei into my life. I’ve found that even small acts—opting for silence on a walk instead of the usual podcast or going a day without my to-do list—can create pockets of stillness that leave me feeling refreshed and recharged.
In a world where constant action and productivity are prized above all else, it's worth recognizing that sometimes, the most valuable thing we can do is nothing at all.
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