The Lost Art of Idleness

April 22nd, 2014 | Posted in Fit Leader, Leadership Fitness, Reading List, Vitality by

Rainer Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist, once wondered whether “those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spent in the most profound activity”.

Rilke believed it was important to be idle “with confidence, with devotion, possibly even with joy”.

Idleness, though, seems to be a lost art.

Look around and all you see are people being asked to produce more, work harder and make every moment count.

The latest neuroscience suggests that while our brains are wired for action and intensity, our brains need time to rest if we are to be at our best on a sustainable basis.

Being busy all the time can actually create problems for our mental and our physical health.

Andrew Smart, in Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing, writes that “chronic busyness destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, our ability to be social — and it can damage our cardiovascular health”.

Contrast the above with the reality that most people with too much time on their hands tend to become unhappy or bored.

We seem to hate idleness, believing it is such a waste of time.

Our brain, according to Smart, has an autopilot just like an airplane.

For the autopilot to work, however, we must relinquish “manual” control, just as the pilot must let the autopilot work to avoid becoming dangerously fatigued.

Taking breaks every 90 minutes or so, getting away for a real vacation (mine is coming up in less than six weeks from today!), adopting a meditation or other breathing practice like yoga or tai chi, all can help us insert some necessary idleness back into our lives.

During Confucian times, idleness was an important part of Chinese culture. A Confucian gentleman grew long fingernails to prove that he did not have to work with his hands.

Confucianism actually “idealized leisure and effortlessness”.

And Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English writer, wrote a number of essays on the benefits of being idle. Idleness, he claimed, “may be enjoyed without injury to others”. Johnson saw idleness as “a silent and peaceful quality, that neither raises envy…nor hatred”.

The key, as with most things in life, is achieving balance between activity and idleness. One without the other is, in the long run, neither productive nor healthy.

For more on the lost art of idleness, read Andrew Smart’s book Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing.

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