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Do Nothing: A precious and arduous activity

Giovanni Cucci, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Sun, May 24th 2020


The difficulty of being by yourself

A time of enforced rest – such as the period of isolation to cope with the coronavirus pandemic – can also provide a valuable lesson. Many have reflected on the significance of this serious epidemic in this respect. Among the many ideas, we would like to take up one well known in the spiritual tradition: take time simply to do nothing.

You can occupy time, kill, fill or cheat it, perhaps by sitting in front of the TV with a beer and crisps. Or, worse, you can yield to the insidiousness of that vice the new web of discoveries offers with its enormous possibilities and equally devastating consequences.[1] All this is the exact antithesis of “doing nothing.”

Simply being by oneself can be stigmatized as a vice, a form of laziness; at the same time it presents itself as the ideal life situation, free from commitments and tasks. But when you make a conscious decision to do nothing, it becomes both easier and harder. Easier because you don’t need any particular activities or proposals, you simply have to remain silent. Harder because our mind is full of images and thoughts, and it is necessary to detoxify from this enormous build-up. This takes time, effort and, if you have never done it, you can easily become discouraged.

An article on psychology that appeared a few years ago, obviously without envisaging the current emergency, began with this very question: “When was the last time you did nothing, nothing at all? Not reading, not watching television, not checking your emails, not taking care of your career […]? When did you let yourselves go all the way to the end of doing nothing, to the emptiness that occurs when all activity ceases and only the diaphragm rises and falls to the rhythm of breathing?”[2] No possibility of escaping the encounter with yourself?  This possibility is often seen as an ideal not within our reach, because there are too many things to do, or, more realistically, because when we are forced to do nothing (as is the case today), we struggle with boredom and frustration. It is perhaps for this reason that often, when we go on holiday, we return more stressed than before.

For many, in fact, being alone with your own thoughts is not a desirable condition but an unbearable torture. Those who are forced to be alone with themselves for a long time, such as the survivors of a shipwreck, prisoners, and those suffering from some illness, are well aware of this. So too are those who, as in this time, are forced to be at home for a long time and discover that the available distractions are inadequate a condition that has also been examined in various experiments.

A series of 11 studies conducted by a team of U.S. researchers showed that when you are alone with yourself, you start to suffer. A group of 146 students were asked to remain silent in contact with their thoughts for a period of 6 to 15 minutes, without having anything with them, sitting in a room that offered no distractions. Then they were asked to evaluate the experience: 58% had difficulty concentrating, 90% were distracted, and half were just bored.

Almost identical results were recorded with older people (up to 77 years of age). Some found this situation so unbearable that they wished for any interruption rather than simply being alone to think. Faced with the proposal to undergo light electric shocks to interrupt the 15 minutes of voluntary boredom, most opted for this possibility, some even enthusiastically. Evidently, dealing with one’s own thoughts is more painful than receiving an electric shock.

The researchers commented on the results as follows: “The untrained mind does not like to be alone with itself.”[3] Yet such training, while painful, is indispensable because it allows us to explore our higher possibilities and abilities, and to help us recognize what we really want from our lives.

Contemplation, synonym of happiness

For centuries people have lived, and lived well, without modern-day distractions. And they recognized in the absence of distraction the way to happiness. Pascal noted that most evils and passions “derive from one thing only, from not knowing how to stay in a room and do nothing.”[4] The training of the mind, noted by the authors of the above mentioned research, was called by the ancients the art of living wisely, the most important and precious activity, because it allows for participation in happiness (eudaimonia), the condition proper to God.

For Aristotle, the pleasure of this activity is perfect; it does not know excess, lack, fatigue, pain, and this is the highest and most worthy action of the free person. The Greek philosopher points out, however, that we can reach this state only for a few brief moments: “Such a life will be too high for a man: in fact, he will not live like this because he is man, but because there is something divine in him: and how much this divine element excels over composite human nature, so much his activity excels over the activity conforming to the other type of virtue. If, therefore, the intellect in comparison with man is a divine reality, the activity according to the intellect will also be divine in comparison with human life.”[5]

But awareness of this limitation does not constitute an objection. The fact that it is a temporary and unstable activity does not make it any less desirable; therefore a person disdainfully rejects the temptation to let it go because it is considered too difficult to achieve. This would mean mortifying the highest and noblest dimension of man: “We must not listen to those who advise man, because he is man and mortal, to limit himself to thinking human and mortal things; on the contrary, as far as possible, we must behave like immortals and do everything possible to live according to the noblest part that is in us. For although its size is small, its power and value are much greater than all the others. It will be admitted, then, that every man identifies with this part, if it is true that it is his main and best part […]. This life, then, will also be the happiest.”[6]

This theme will be widely taken up by Christian writers. Saint Augustine, for example, writes: “The delight one feels in contemplating the truth is so great, so pure, so sincere, and gives so much certainty of the truth, that those who experience it believe they have never known the things they previously believed they knew; and so that the soul may fully adhere to the total Truth, it no longer fears the death it previously feared; indeed, it desires it as a supreme acquisition.”[7]

Some clarifications of the term ‘contemplation’

It is important not to misunderstand this term, as if it were reserved for a small community of hermits or encourages passivity at the expense of action. When he speaks of contemplation, Aristotle intends something different than how it is thought of today. The examination of current opinions of what is worthwhile, leads him to conclude that happiness can be achieved by exercising two apparently opposing activities, such as contemplation and relationships, thanks to which man achieves his own end, which differentiates him from other animals and slaves, making him share in the life proper to God, and giving a measure of joy and beauty to what he has accomplished.

Contemplation is not opposed to action, but, as creative,  it is its highest expression, which allows us to be fully alive. The psychologist Abraham Maslow calls these moments “peak-experiences,” in which time appears to have stopped, existence is perceived in all its beauty, and the Absolute makes its entrance, enriching the subject. In this way a deep joy is felt, combined with surprise and amazement, together with a sense of gratitude for such a gift received unexpectedly. As a result, the person becomes more tolerant, capable of forgiveness, of empathy, and is able to react more sensitively to suffering and difficulties.[8] The term “peak-experiences” can include a phenomenological range of extremely varied elements, such as poetry, literary inspiration, a work of art, a love affair, a mystical state.

Those who experience such moments do not have the impression of being inert, but, on the contrary, consider them as the most intense experiences of their lives. These characteristics of fulfilment also include professional activity, which, if it is in tune with one’s deepest desires, can be considered an anticipation of bliss. This, for example, is the way an American psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom, describes his profession in an autobiographical novel: “Fortunate is he who loves his work. Ernest felt lucky, of course. More than lucky. Blessed. He was a man who had found his vocation, who could say: ‘I express myself perfectly, I am at the height of my talents, my interests, my passions.’ Ernest was not religious, but when he opened his appointment book every morning and saw the names of the eight or nine people who were dear to him and with whom he would spend the day, he was overwhelmed by a feeling that he could only define by the term ‘religious’. In those moments he felt the deepest desire to give thanks – to someone, to something – for having guided him to understand his vocation.”[9]

Silence and attention, the doors to the truth of oneself

Remaining silent is a difficult thing, because it is not a spontaneous state and distractions always loom. You feel that you have no power over your mind and thoughts evade control.

In a medieval story, a parish priest bets a farmer that if he is able to pray the Our Father without being distracted, he will give him a donkey. The farmer accepts with enthusiasm, thinking about the easy gain, but halfway through the prayer he suddenly asks: “But will you also give me the saddle?”[10] Staying totally attentive for the duration of an “Our Father” is not an easy exercise.

Simone Weil had understood this well, and she too discovered the value and difficulty of attention when praying. This was something she had never done until the day when, requested to give Greek lessons, she chose to use the text of the Pater noster, and remained conquered by it. But she also noted the difficulty of stopping to reflect on those words without being distracted. And she decided to pray them carefully every morning. When she became distracted, she would start all over again. In this way she learned to taste the Greek nuances in that enchanting text and the value of attention: “The power of this practice is extraordinary and every time surprises me, because although I experience it every day, it exceeds my expectations every time. At times the first words already capture the thought from my body and transport it to a place outside of space, where there is neither perspective nor point of view […]. At the same time, this infinity of infinity is filled, in all its parts, with silence, a silence that is not the absence of sound, but the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of a sound. The noises, if there are any, reach me only after having gone through this silence.”[11]

The main difficulty is that attention is considered an effort of the will. That is why, when she invited her students to pay attention, Weil noticed that they were struggling to contract their muscles, and to the next question – What were they paying attention to?– they were unable to answer. Simone understands that attention is like prayer: a struggle to access the depths of the self, a struggle that at first wears one out, but purifies and allows one to taste life. It is not a technique to apply, but a gift to be welcomed with simplicity: “Attention is an effort, perhaps the greatest of efforts, but it is a negative effort. In itself it does not involve effort. When it makes itself felt, attention is almost no longer possible, unless you have already practiced it a lot.”[12]

It is like breathing; when you carry out this exercise with attention you make contact with yourself, and you regenerate yourself: “Twenty minutes of intense and effortless attention is worth infinitely more than three hours of application with a wrinkled forehead, which makes you say, with the feeling of having done your duty: ‘I worked hard’ […]. The most precious goods are not to be searched for, but awaited. Man cannot find them by his own strength alone.”[13] Again the importance of doing nothing returns, lived consciously and with docility.

Weil does not hide the difficulty of this exercise, which is like holding your breath under water, but it is essential if you want to reach the depths of the spirit: “In our soul there is something that repels true attention much more violently than the flesh repels fatigue. This something is much closer to evil than the flesh. That is why, every time one truly pays attention, one destroys a little evil in oneself. A quarter of an hour of attention so oriented has the same value as many good works.”[14]

A refreshment for the intelligence

Weil’s insights have been matched by those of neurologists. Not long ago a network was discovered in our brain that is activated when we are at rest. We think about ourselves and other people, we retrace our past history, or we fantasize about the future. It is called the “default mode network,” and was identified by neurologist Marcus Raichie in 2001.[15] In practice, it favors the reworking and evaluation of how we live, distinguishing what is essential from what is secondary, which is the exercise of intelligence: “Only when we do nothing, irrelevant thoughts are separated from the essential ones and, if we can go deeper, we can go into the territory beyond thought […]. If we do not properly practice such a setting aside of activity, we lose contact with ourselves, we no longer know what we really want and we throw ourselves into activity without thinking.”[16]

Of course, as has been noted several times, this is not an easy exercise. But it is important to know this, especially when the dreaded boredom emerges. And yet even this is a thought that must be decoded. People who have been confronted with silence and self-reliance have discovered that boredom is not only a feeling to be taken into account, but it is also important, for it is the gateway to the truth of oneself. It is also the condition for being creative. For this reason we should flee from it as though from something dangerous (as Pascal warned). Like the fatigue that accompanies skill in physical activities, boredom is an indispensable passage to remaining present to oneself. It is a fact also described in psychological terms: “Boredom and anxiety are signs that push toward a greater participation in the reality of things, not an escape from it […]. The experience of boredom is directly linked to creativity and innovation. If we remain attentive and curious about our boredom, we can use it as a moment to take a step back and then reconnect with reality in a new way.”[17]

An always current and unpredictable experience

What Weil noted is an experience that is renewed punctually when you overcome the fear of being alone with yourself: an experience that mostly happens, as in these days, when you find yourself forced to do so. This is the case of the young officer cadet Franz Jalics at the end of the Second World War. Confined in a monastery as a prisoner of war, he experienced boredom and decided to spend his days in silence, in contact with nature and with himself. At first he did not pay attention to it, but as time went by he noticed that this activity filled him, transformed him, he felt refreshed, and happy to be alive: “After that year, […] a contemplative foundation had grown within me that manifested itself in a particular inner tranquility and clarity.”[18] From that experience he learned to recognize what is truly close to his heart, where he “truly expressed himself” (in Yalom’s words): he decided to enter the Society of Jesus and to dedicate himself to proposing contemplative exercises for anyone who wanted to re-read their life, reconcile themselves with their wounds and discover God’s plan, fulfilling the fundamental desire in their hearts.

To make contact with oneself Jalics proposed first of all to exercise perception: “the perceptions of the senses, such as hearing, feeling, tasting, seeing and smelling, and spiritual perception, that of becoming conscious, of becoming aware, of perceiving […]. To remain in perception also means to remain in the present.”[19] The exercise of perception has progressively faded in modern times, which have privileged thinking and doing. But without perception, thinking becomes a torment (as in the 11 experiments of voluntary prisoners) and doing generates stress. In both we try to escape the present, which is the only dimension in which we are alive.

Perception can be boring, of course. But when you welcome it and listen to it, it ceases to be annoying and gives way to something else, as described above. Contemplating does not tire, it regenerates. That is why Jalics observes that eternal life, spent in the endless contemplation of God, will not be a tiring activity.  It will have no need of a break or a holiday, because we will have reached that fullness of which all the experiences and activities of the present time constitute a fragment and, when we feel fulfilled, an eloquent anticipation.[20]

Let us then make a virtue of necessity, and take advantage of this time to make contact with ourselves, without fear.[21]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 05 art. 4, 0520: 10.32009/22072446.0520.4

[1].          Cf. G. Cucci, “Cybersex. An insidious addiction”, in Civ. Catt. En. August, 2019

[2].          B. Schönberger, “Far niente”, in Psicologia contemporanea, No. 252, November-December 2015, 12.

[3].          T. D. Wilson et Al., “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind”, in Science, No. 345, July 2014, 75-77.

[4].          B. Pascal, Pensées, No. 126.

[5].          Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X, 7, 1177 b 25-32.

[6].          Ibid., X, 7, 1178 a 5-10. Same conclusion in Metaphysics: “Just as human intelligence – intelligence, at least, which does not think of compounds – behaves at some time, so does divine intelligence behave, thinking of itself for all eternity” (Metaphysics, XII, 9, 1074 b 15 – 1075 a 10; italics ours).

[7].          Augustine, De Quantitate Animae, 33,76.

[8].          Cf. A. Maslow, Religious, Values, and Peak-Experiences, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1964, 59. For more information, cf. G. Cucci, L’arte di vivere. Educare alla felicità, Milan, Àncora – La Civiltà Cattolica, 2019.

[9] .         I. Yalom, Sul lettino di Freud, Milan, Neri Pozza, 2015, 7.

[10].         Quoted in G. Canobbio, “Leggere per formarsi”, in La Rivista del Clero Italiano 96 (2015) 660.

[11].         S. Weil, Attesa di Dio, Milan, Rusconi, 1984, 45f. A very similar experience is described by Augustine: “I love a kind of light and voice and smell and food and dialogue in loving my God; the light, the voice, the smell, the food, the dialogue with the inner man who is in me, where a light not enveloped by space shines in my soul, where a voice not overwhelmed by time resonates, where a perfume not dispersed by the wind gives a pleasant scent, where a taste not attenuated by voracity is caught, where a grip is knotted and not interrupted by satiety. This I love, when I love my God” ( Confessions, X, 6,8).

[12].         Ibid., 80. These indications are very similar to the third way of prayer suggested by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in the Spiritual Exercises: “At every yearning or breath one prays mentally by saying a word of the Our Father or another prayer that one wants to recite; thus, between one breath and another, one thinks primarily of the meaning of that word, or the person to whom it is addressed, or one’s own smallness, or the distance between that greatness and one’s own smallness. With the same procedure and the same measure one continues with the other words of the Our Father; finally one says the other prayers in the usual way, that is, the Hail Mary, the Anima Christi, the Creed and the Salve Regina” (n. 258).

[13].         S. Weil, Attesa di Dio, op. cit., 80f.

[14].         Ibid.

[15].         R. L. Buckner – J. R. Andrews-Hanna – D. L. Schacter, “The Brain’s Default Network: Anatomy, Function, and Relevance to Disease”, in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 1124 (2008), No. 1, 1-38; M. E. Raichie – A. Z. Snyder, “A default mode of brain function: A brief history of an evolving idea”, in NeuroImage 37 (2007) 1083-1090.

[16].         B. Schönberger, “Far niente”, op. cit., 15.

[17].         S. Turkle, La conversazione necessaria. La forza del dialogo nell’era digitale, Turin, Einaudi, 2016, 50-52; see S. Mann – R. Cadman, “Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative?” in Creativity Research Journal 26 (2014) 165-173.

[18].         F. Jalics, Esercizi di contemplazione, Milan, Àncora, 2018, 29f.

[19].         Ibid., 34. An indication also noted by Pascal in a famous aphorism: “Let each one examine his own thoughts: he will always find them occupied with the past and the future. We hardly ever think about the present or, if we think about it, it is only to catch the light in order to prepare for the future. The present is never our goal; the past and the present are our means; only the future is our goal. Thus, we never live, but we hope to live, and, always preparing ourselves to be happy, it is inevitable that we are never happy” (B. Pascal, Pensées, No. 172).

[20].         F. Jalics, Esercizi di contemplazione, op. cit., 36.

[21].         In addition to the texts on these pages, we suggest a short exercise of attention and prayer: “Decide to keep 10 minutes of silence and choose an appropriate place and time…. Find a convenient location…, close your eyes… First of all, feel your mind dispersed for a minute or two… feel the silence now…. This allows you to become aware of this dispersion… Listening to the sounds generates silence… Pay attention to all the sounds you can hear… Keep silent for five minutes, pay attention to the sounds around you… It’s not about identifying them… stop for a moment on each one, one at a time… The intense, the soft…, the near, the distant… Listen now to the sound of your breathing…, feel yourself on the edge of this current and listen to it… Listen now to all the sounds around you as if they were one sound… At the end, ask yourself: What have I perceived, what have I experienced, what have I encountered at this moment?” (G. Cucci – M. Marelli, Istruzioni per il tempo degli Esercizi spirituali, Rome, AdP, 2015, 221f).

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