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“An idle mind is devil’s workshop” is something we have all heard, lending idleness a bad reputation. Religion, a multi – billion-dollar self-help industry, employers, and society in general also do not consider idleness an agreeable way of existence. But I believe that this rather aggressive denunciation of idleness is uncalled for and there is a compelling case to be made for it.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing

The Oxford dictionary defines idling as “spending time doing nothing” and leisure as “time when one is not working or occupied; free time”. But I personally like the description by Josef Pieper in his book – “Leisure, a basis of culture” which I came across in the edition of The Marginalian (by Maria Popova) titled “Leisure, the Basis of Culture: An Obscure German Philosopher’s Timely 1948 Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Human Dignity in a Culture of Workaholism”.  Peiper says “Against the exclusiveness of the paradigm of work as activity … there is leisure as “non-activity” — an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, an ability to let things go, to be quiet…”

With that description, it is rather hard to believe why leisure and idling would find any opposition in the world. But unfortunately, there is no dearth of critics. Yet, even after a collective consensus amongst all power structures that idling is bad, we still inevitably find our mind going into that mode of idling. We find it wandering and we keep pulling it back to focus. But to wander is mind’s inherent nature and it is not as bad as it is made out to be. Interestingly, there are cultures and traditions that endorse idling. Take for example, the Italians –who gave us the phrase “Dolce far niente” – “The sweetness of doing nothing”, or closer home, Goa has its own culture of “Susegad” which refers to the largely laid back, relaxed and content attitude of the residents of the region. Then there are some cities that shut down during afternoons as the dwellers exercise their autonomy over time and leisure by performing the simple act of napping. Pune and Pondicherry are two cities which come to my mind, and I am sure there are many more. This to me is a testimony of idleness being inherent to human nature.  Then why did it become so difficult for us to be idle? Well, part of the answer lies in the power imbalance that has existed in our society. The power being concentrated in the hands of a very small percentage of people and their leisure being dependent on incessant toiling of  others.  Whether or not one can have leisure or even dream of it, depends on so many factors like socio economic background, gender, culture, race, caste, history and conditioning to name few. Depending on these factors, for some inviting leisure into their lives is nothing short of an act of courage.

Leisure lost

Our predecessors had predicted that with the technological advancement, humans would be spending less time working and would have more time at their disposal to dedicate towards pursuits of artistic and scientific nature, towards contemplation, enquiry and thought. Even though we have advanced technologically, the latter part of the prophecy has not come true. Despite automation of almost all functions of our life, we see ourselves working excruciatingly long hours…longer than even the times when slavery and feudalism were prevalent in the world. This glorification of busyness and hard labour finds its origin in history and has continued to be upheld by the most prominent power structures of our times – the big corporates that influence public policy, laws, trends, economy, jobs and practically every other aspect of our existence. It is imperative for these corporates to keep growing and generating more returns for their stakeholders. They earn more if the consumers buy moreand for that there must be a creation of need and an association between owning things and happiness. To do that, they track us, collect our data, assess us and make us the focus of targeted advertisements. They manipulate and play with our emotions, psyche, vulnerabilities and try every possible means to make us buy more, practically leaving us choiceless. This creation of need gives birth to consumerism and materialism and the cycle of production and acquisition continues.

Peiper says, “ability to be at leisure is one of the basic super powers of the human soul.”, then how did we end up fearing it? The very systems amidst which we function are founded on the fear of inadequacy. Since idleness has come to be equated with laziness and busyness as a mark of dedication, nobody wants to be idle out of the fear of appearing lazy. Unless we are not accounting for every single moment of our waking hours, we are just not doing enough. To add, inequality, exploitation and corruption are inevitably a part these structures and there are many of us who work inhuman hours and yet can barely afford a half decent life. Yet if you looked up idleness, you will be surprised with how many people have pondered over idleness and favored it. I have now come to second their judgement. But that was not always the case. Here is how I found and embraced idleness.

Leisure found

I was a part of the great Indian workforce. I was one of the early risers, the commuters, the fast-paced walkers marching to their desks as if they were thrones to be claimed in a war. While I enjoyed a good day of work, years of conditioning instilled in me a strong belief that rest, fun, leisure, idle time, holidays were to be earned and that I deserved them only if I was working hard enough. My time was not my own. I could not decide when I wanted to wake up, work, exercise eat, sleep… it was decided for me by other people. I glorified the grind even though I knew that I was being crushed. This continued until one day I could not withstand it and found myself quitting my job and moving the mountains.

I could now use my time as I pleased. I could have lied on the grass and stared at the sky, or I could have listened to the whistle of the wind as it blew past the pine trees, without worrying about assignments and emails. While I did all of this, it was not without a sense of guilt. Guilt of pleasure, joy and idleness which was coming my way as a way of life, without having to earn it. Not as a reward for hard work to motivate myself for more hard work, but just as a reality of existence. I found myself struggling to make sense of my new reality.

I was determined to make something out of this time. For almost an entire year, I tried to be productive, healthy, creative, mindful, self-aware, read more books, help take a business forward, freelance, grow plants, write, make art… This list is by no means short and enough to tell you that I did not do any of it well. Here I was, having given up a career, a certain life that was familiar if not perfect, moved almost halfway across the country to be in this beautiful place where I woke up every day to the sounds of the birds and sights of mountains and yet, I kept falling into my old patterns, the most prominent one being trying to measure my worth in terms of what and how much I did. I even remember saying “This experience is wasted on me. If someone else were in my place, by now they would have produced a book, or a series of paintings or a whole photo album…or at least something!”.  

I was trying to measure things that can’t be measured and making everything, including beauty utilitarian.  If a sight captivated me, a part of my brain would be busy assessing what I could do with it. The approach of determining the value of an experience in the measured terms of its usefulness in furthering our careers, personalities, public image etc. has become common in a world where we are all competing to survive, so much so that we are almost repelled by pleasure and joy for the sake of them. This has marked the demise of so many experiences human beings previously enjoyed, likehobbies, contemplation, play, pause… Now even fun must serve a purpose.

It dawned on me only much later, how wrong I was. In fact, the very realization came about because I let my mind idle – not on purpose, but just by chance. It was one of those days where I had berated myself enough for not being and doing enough and I was so exhausted with myself that I decided to just make myself a cup of cacao and  be quiet. It was a beautiful evening with cool, gentle breeze and the last of the sunlight making everything glow. . I just sat, sipped my cacao, thinking of nothing in particular, looking at what was in front of me –  trees, birds, mountains… A few minutes into this silence, I felt comfortable and peaceful. Then out of nowhere, I had a realization that all these years, all that I was doing was pushing my mind and body to do exactly the opposite of what they told me. I could never quite understand this “listen to your body and mind” instruction because I was incapable of listening. What my mind and body were telling me was drowned in the din of the world outside, commitments, obligations, duties and what not.  If my body wished rest and sleep, I would keep it awake, if my mind would wander, I would keep pulling it back into focus only to lose it again … It had left me exhausted, disconnected with myself and in a state of constant inner conflict. When in reality, I did not have to be in this state of war with myself. This realization felt like such a release and the more I released the control over my mind, the more I realized. I could now trace the connections between my most joyful or creative moments and the state of my mind in those moments.

Something that stood out for me was a quarantine, a result of what now appears to be a false Covid positive report. For 10 days I was confined alone in one room  and had all this quiet time to do whatever I wanted to do with it, which I did and, in that process, I surprised myself and produced a short story! I had always harboured a desire to write, butfor the longest time could not even admit to myself that I wished to write. But I wrote an entire story  because l was not holding my mind back or demanding its attention to specific tasks. When I let it free, it wandered and came back bearing ideas. So, an idle mind is not devil’s workshop. It is in fact the sacred chamber where creativity, connections, solutions, ideas are born. But again, the best and probably the only way to do it is to enjoy leisure and idleness just for the sake of it and not expecting any results.

The art of idling 
Its alright to stop and let your mind do the wandering.

Now, I must assure you that for the sake of this article, the aforesaid theory was put to rigorous test and experimentation. I can proudly declare that I spent a long time doing what I am championing here – Idling. I let my mind free and did not make any attempts to stop it or to nudge it in any particular direction. The farther I let it wander, more ideas came to my mind, some of which were indeed interesting and worth pursuing.

Leisure in the times of no time

Now, one may argue that not everybody has the luxury of time to idle away. I could tell you many practical ways in which one can carve out the time. But, the internet is replete with these. Besides, the point is not to make it yet another activity on your to do list. Rather it is the lack of activity.

While we bemoan about lack of time, we must also remember the generosity with which we waste our time doing things that are neither necessary nor enjoyable. Take for example the hours we spend scrolling social media or watching content that does not offer any value, not even enjoyment. And yet, there is great hesitation in spending some time doing nothing. We are so scared of doing absolutely nothing, that we are ready to do absolutely anything to avoid that. This itself should propel us in spending more time with ourselves, letting our mind free and going with the flow.

Now, I think I have made a convincing enough case for idling, but like any other respectable article, a dash of science is an essential ingredient to draw my point home. So, let’s see what happens when our brain is idling.

Even an idle mind is not idle

Our brains are comprised of networks and connections and different networks are activated in different situations. Needless to say, our brains are never actually idle. Even when we are not doing or thinking anything in particular, say when we are day dreaming, our mind is still active.

When our brains are focused on a particular task, the network that is activated is called the “Executive Control Network” (“ECN”). This Network is responsible for processing of information into memory, problem solving, decision making and goal-oriented approach towards tasks. On the other hand, when our mind is not focused on anything in particular, i.e. when it is idle, day dreaming, free flowing, then the other network of our brain known as the “Default Mode Network” (“DMN”) is activated. This network is responsible for imagination, retrieval of past memories, introspection, reflection, our judgement and understanding of others and social situations, making connections, and so much more. This is the network that sparks new ideas and aids creativity. When this part of our brain is activated, it is working outside the four walls of any specific focus area. You could say, it is thinking or working “out of the box”. Many times, when you encounter a problem to which the solution is not handy, you have those moments while doing something entirely different like taking a shower, watering your house plants or walking, all of a sudden you have an “aha” moment when a solution comes to your mind. It was your DMN which was active because your mind was let free and led to that moment. However, many activities that now pass as leisure or idling are not so. For instance, Netflix and chill will not light up your DMN because your mind will still be focused on specific objects and details.

It is important to note that if we have to make any sense of our thoughts and ideas that come to our mind when we are idling, we need our ECN to do that for us. This network helps us identify good ideas from no so good ones and putting them into action. At the same time, an over-stimulation of Executive Control Network makes us less creative and imaginative. So, the two networks are actually dependent on each other and the more they interact with each other, the sharper and more creative our brain becomes.

Embracing idleness

In this culture of effectiveness, multitasking, measuring and accounting for each waking moment of our lives as we chase the urban legend of “Work – Life Balance”, we have forgotten what is the most natural to us – rest. We have become fearful of what should in fact be a way of life. There is great wisdom in our bodies and minds and if we become quiet, we will be able to listen to what they tell us. Leisure, rest, idleness are not acts of shame, but affirmations of life and existence. They don’t have to serve any purpose and yet sometimes, they can help us find ours. So, embrace idleness with all your heart and see where it takes you. And you know what could make it even better? A cup of cacao. Cacao will calm your mind, relax your body and make you aware so that you see, hear and sense what you are truly meant to.

If you liked reading this article, we feel you would enjoy these too
Work and Pleasure: Theodor Adorno on the Psychology of “Gadgeteering” and How the Cult of Efficiency Limits our Happiness (the Marginalian)
In Praise of Idleness, by Bertrand Russell
Basanti : Women at leisure – A photo project on Instagram by Surabhi Yadav
Juice – A short film by Neeraj Ghaywan

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