The art of doing nothing | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

The art of doing nothing

By Caroline Wellbery
The art of doing nothing   On arriving at Djerassi, I welcomed leaving productivity behind. I’d worked hard to jettison my usual obligations: teaching medical students, supervising residents, seeing patients and hardest of all to throw off, the editing tasks I normally do on a daily basis for our academy’s medical journal. So I was much reassured that I needed, while I was here for a delicious, unencumbered month, to do nothing.   Doing nothing is, for one thing, a disciplined act. Underneath these virtual pages on which I type lurks my email account. I could at any time let the messages suck me in and nibble at me like so many piranhas. No doubt there is a student who wants to meet with me about a project that can’t realistically be completed the way she envisions it. Or an author will want me to call him for just ‘one minute’ but which involves a conversation I know will go on for twenty. Or a copyeditor has sent me the galleys for a paper, with urgent queries that only my co-author can answer, though she is off trekking in Nepal. It takes a certain amount of fortitude to resist the tide of messages, all of which give me a false sense of my indispensability.   Doing nothing is, therefore, also a philosophical act. I have always been fond of saying, “Everyone needs a project.” We need a project in order to feel useful, even if it is only to the ants at our feet, to a political prisoner on the other side of the globe, or just to ourselves.  As soon as we embark on a project, meaning accrues, which is why the most humble of hunger artists can be as content as the CEO of a multi-national corporation.  So imagine how doing nothing challenges our construction of meaning. Doing nothing gets us down to our bare bones, or at least our underwear. For a moment we feel what it’s like to just be. And that’s why when Margot Knight invited us to ‘just be’, she spoke to that most profound opportunity offered us here at Djerassi, to do nothing.   Which brings me to the third component of doing nothing, that is to say its role in gathering the forces of creativity.  Doing nothing is in reality a very busy activity. Otherwise, Goncharov, the Russian author, would not have been able to create a whole novel out of Oblomov’s idleness.  (For those who have not read it, Oblomov cannot get himself up from his couch). Just as sleep mysteriously cleans up the previous day’s neurochemical messes in our brain, doing nothing makes room for the deepest form of creative repair.  There is, in the endless thread of emails, a heavy chain that continually yanks us into obedience.  We follow the lead, feeling at times abused, but always at the mercy of some other need or want.  We need to create space for possibility. On my first morning here, I woke to see the orange moon, above which hung Venus, a single point of light. I watched the fog find different pillows of rest on the sea below. The scent of laurel filled the air. Nothing, not the moon, not the fog, not the laurel, expected anything from me.   I sat at my desk and began to write.