When everything feels too much to handle, even with the best laid-out plans you’d feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. Everything seems to come at you all at once and you feel like that there’s not enough of anything to do everything—not enough time, not enough money, not enough support, and most especially not enough you. Desperate for help, perhaps from no one in particular, you ask, “How do I do this? What do I do?”
Most of the time, in the attempt to deal with everything, we spring into action even more. We reassess our plans, downsize our to-do lists, set our priorities, start to say ‘no,’ delegate tasks and manage our time as efficiently as we can. We enroll in a yoga class and start a meditation practice or do whatever we think would help take away the feeling of overwhelm only to realize that they are yet more items to add to our already endless list.
Worst of all, our mind goes on overdrive, stressed not only about what’s going on around us or what we have to do, but by the commentaries going on in our head: I can’t do all of this. I don’t have what it takes. What if I made a mistake? What if I fail? We want to prove to everybody that we can do it all hiding the fact that we are a mental and emotional mess.
Our lives are filled with obligations and must-do’s. To make matters worse, in our materially-driven world, we are pressured to be ‘productive’—which often translates to always doing something (even if it’s not productive). We don’t want to appear lazy or useless so, sometimes, we even make ourselves busy just to appear productive even if busy and productive are, in fact, two different things.
We’ve glorified ‘busyness’ as good or something to strive for, creating the culture of ‘working more to accomplish more and succeed’ when the only thing it does is stretch ourselves too thin and accomplish less. Stanford and Harvard have both done a research that proved that doing less and creating more peace in our minds clear the barriers to success. And yet, many of us actually thrive in that busy-makes-me-important make-believe.
But whatever is overwhelming you, even if it’s life in general—you know, that I-don’t-know-how-to-be-human-on-this-planet thing—sometimes, the more we try to get out of it, the faster and deeper we sink in. We don’t realize that the best thing to do is not just to do less, but to actually do nothing.
Doing nothing, the cultural way
Most of us are foreign to the concept of doing nothing. In a goal-oriented global culture driven by the pursuit of success, this sounds lazy, aimless, and unproductive. For many, it is simply unimaginable to just do nothing. But doing nothing doesn’t necessarily mean to sleep or binge-watch on Netflix all day. It does not mean pure idleness. It simply means slowing down and savoring every moment of life.
The Italians call this Il dolce far niente or ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’ as featured in the book-turned-movie Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. They ‘do nothing’ by living--enjoying the simple pleasures in life like having a glass of wine or a long lunch with friends at a sweet, leisurely pace. This is not just afforded to those who have plenty of time in their hands—it is part of their daily culture.
In Denmark, this lifestyle of ‘slowness’ is called Hygge. Literally translated, it means ‘fun’ but it is actually more than that. It is a “word to acknowledge a special feeling or moment.” Birthed out of the necessity to deal with boredom during the cold, dark, somber days of the Scandinavian winter, Hygge is about consciously and deliberately creating moments of pleasure so as not to let day-to-day life be hard, menial or dull. Whether it’s enjoying a nice hot cup of cocoa on a snowy day, reading a book by the fireplace or doing something more extraordinary, Hygge is part of the Danish DNA.
The Dutch have their own version of this, too, although it is a relatively new practice. They call it niksen which is ‘doing something without a purpose, like staring out the window, hanging out, or listening to music.’ In general, the people of the Netherlands frown upon niksen but growing commercialization has been slowly eroding its laidback culture, resulting to increasing cases of stress, anxiety and depression. Consequently, more life coaches are recommending niksen to clients suffering from burnout.
Doing nothing is a practice—a way of life, even—that not only helps us cope, but also forces us to slow down, decompress and reboot. But more importantly, it teaches us to pay attention to ourselves and what’s happening to our lives instead of just working ourselves to oblivion. It teaches how to really live instead of just survive.
Doing nothing, the conscious way
In Chinese, doing nothing is called wu wei. It is at the core of Taoism’s philosophy to “follow The Way,” where in its central text Tao Te Ching is written: ”The way of nature is not contrived, yet nothing which is required is left undone.” This is the paradox of doing something by doing nothing. Non-action—or more appropriately, effortless action—is a natural, more powerful form of action.
In our strive to become successful, we set goals, make plans, and take measurable actions to get to where we want to be in life. But the act of performing tasks and planning for the future is our ego’s way of trying to control our future and outcomes. This keeps us trapped in the physical and material world, disconnects us from our higher consciousness and blocks our true path.
To get out of our state of overwhelm or any other state of negativity, we need to give up egoic agendas, goals, and intricate plans and align ourselves with higher consciousness through non-action. Doing nothing simply means releasing what’s coming from the ego and allowing our True Self to guide us on our path. This way, we create from a place of self-empowerment instead of merely reacting to life, living in auto-pilot, meeting expectations and fulfilling obligations. Without our ego-driven actions, we let go of our attachment to how things will turn out and be aware of where our inner being leads us and act from there.
Spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra explains that we need to do four things to live a more conscious way of life. First, we must be aware of our environment fully and be completely open and unbiased to what we perceive. Sometimes things manifest in forms that we don’t expect. If we’re too attached to what our ego-self wants, we could easily miss what the Universe presents to us.
Second, we enhance this awareness with our focus by paying attention to what we perceive. He says that this “lets the creative flow of consciousness find a direction.” Multitasking is the enemy of focus. Not even the best of GPS systems could help us get to our next turn, let alone our destination, if we’re too busy talking on the phone, listening to the radio on full blast or planning our team outing in our head. Without focused attention, we will miss the signals that lead us to our path.
Third, we find our dharma--Sanskrit for alignment—which is “the most efficient path to a goal that is supported by nature.” In Buddhism, dharma refers to ‘cosmic law and order’ or that which governs the Universe. Our personal dharma is what we were born to do—a divine plan that others refer to as calling, destiny or life purpose—that is in complete alignment with the cosmos.
When we came into this world, we had a “master plan”—the curriculum we brought with us to this school called Earth. But we end up allowing our ego to take charge and live our life based on agendas that serve itself instead of our True Self. Finding our dharma means aligning ourselves to that master plan once again. By doing so, the Universe supports us in ways that allow us to do things more easily and effortlessly.
And finally, we allow. Allowing is the Buddhist way of non-doing. Once we’ve been aware, focused and found the path of least resistance and choose to tread it, we then allow things to unfold on their own. This is the ultimate decision to get out of our own way. We let go of our need to make things happen and control the outcomes. When we let go of our fears and resistance, we trust the Universe to deliver to us what is truly aligned with our higher path so we could walk that path with ease and grace.
“Do you have the patience to wait… till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving… till the right action arises by itself? - Lao Tzu