The Art of Being, Not Doing

When I look back on the year, my favorite days were usually the ones when I was doing nothing.

I was just being.

Not just as in “barely or by a little.”

The way it seems just gets used or referenced most of the time nowadays.

Just as in “simply, only, no more than.”

But for a long time, I thought this way of being was a luxury, something only accessible on vacation.

Actually before that, I forgot that this was my favorite way of being.

And before that I forgot this was a way of being at all.

Busy Beings

But how could this be? How could one forget that we are human be-ings?

Because nowadays we feel more like human do-ings.

In Overwhelmed, Brigid Shulte interviewed a researcher who studies Christmas Holiday cards who discovered, “My God, people are competing about being busy. It’s about showing status. That if you’re busy, you’re important. You’re leading a full and worthy life.”

We have slipped into the cult of busy. I know I did.

I spent the better part of my teens and 20s being an active member.

Too many commitments and expectations, I lived back-to-back and double-booked with a ton of worry and anxiety gluing it all together.

I thought I was “living life to the fullest.” I wasn’t.

My life wasn’t full, it was just compulsively busy.

Busy doing, not full of being.

Loved for Doing

“The difficulty of always feeling that you ought to be doing something is that you tend to undervalue the times when you’re apparently doing nothing, and those are very important times. It’s the equivalent of the dream time, in your daily life, times when things get sorted out and reshuffled. If you’re constantly awake work-wise you don’t allow that to happen,” said musician and producer Brian Eno within Scott McDowell’s essay in Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind.

“Most of our current work and life structures have been devised to emphasize production and how much we can accomplish rather than the nurturing of the soul,” wrote Tami Lynn Kent in Wild Creative.

“Because of the general emphasis on production, achievement and building a career, we typically learn to create by becoming self-sufficient and actively doing whatever needs to be done.”

Our culture models and celebrates self-sufficiency, doing everything for ourselves instead of relying on help from others, which makes a lot more work or doing for us.

It’s a slippery slope to always doing as Brian Eno describes, and/or to over-doing.

Economist Juliet Schor argues that with the introduction of the clock in the thirteenth century and the rise of manufacturing time became money, as Schulte shared in Overwhelmed. 

Add productivity and competition to self-sufficiency and independence and you quickly get a value for achievement.

More, faster, better, best.

This state of achievement celebrates us for what we do, not who we are.

It’s a pretty easy detour to mis-interpret this as the recipe for worthiness and love:

“As long as we are working hard, using our gifts to serve others, experiencing joy in our work along with the toil, we are always in danger…” wrote Lynne Baab.

In danger of believing we are loved for what we do, not who we are.

Loved for Being

Baab said that only in stopping, really stopping, do we teach our hearts and souls that we are loved apart from what we do.

For me, as soon as I was paying attention to the rest of the world in high school, I picked up on this message: doing = love.

I longed for love. Always had.

And always had it. But, I didn’t realize that back then.

I just sensed that I was different and misunderstood. By others and by myself.

In looking for models of love in my life, I saw the celebration of achievement – on the news, at school, at home – and I took that to heart.

Along the way, I lost track of my favorite way of being: my true nature.

Reconnecting with my being and shedding layers of achievement accumulated over the decades has been transformative. Relearning that I am loved —always— and especially for who I am has been one of the biggest life lessons for me.

I believe we all still inherently know how to be. Just as we are all loved for being. But, we are often too distracted to notice or remember.

So, first we have to stop.

Easier said than done.


“The popular assumption is that no skills are involved in enjoying free time, and that anybody can do it. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite: free time is more difficult to enjoy than work. Having leisure at one’s disposal does not improve the quality of life unless one knows how to use it effectively, and it is by no means something one learns automatically,” said Mihaly Csikszentmihali.

As one of the leading researchers of flow, or that ultimate state of being, he should know.

Point taken: just being can feel lonely, boring, and/or uncomfortable when infrequent because of too much doing.

Or when one does not first feel connected and loved for being.

In her research about overwork, Schulte also explored leisure which often creates flow when practiced frequently.

“In the purest sense, leisure is not being slothful, idle or frivolous. It is, in the words of leisure researcher Ben Hunnicutt, simply being open to the wonder and marvel of the present. ‘The miracle of now,’ he calls it, to choose to do something with no other aim than that it refreshes the soul, or to choose to do nothing at all. To just be and feel fully alive.

“…a time not just for play, recreation and connection with others but also for meditation, reflection, and deep thought…Throughout the course of history, in this leisure time away from toil, elite men…came up with some of the most brilliant innovations, enduring art, and soaring discoveries humanity has ever known,” wrote Schulte.

Oh, the irony: in not doing, we find our greatest achievements.

Once upon a time, a third of the year was dedicated to days off, eg: festivals, Saint’s days, milestones like births, deaths and marriages, Sabbath and other official rest days.

Further back in Roman times, almost half the year were public festivals—days of being, not doing.

This is what I find in my Sabbath time each week.

Time to put all the doing aside with lots of space for relating, dreaming, being.

And being inspired. Some of my most original ideas have been showing up on Sabbath even as I’m trying not to think or do.

Ways of Being

When I’m just being, life is full of:

  • Mindfulness
  • Intention
  • Attention
  • Clarity

I discard what’s distracting or disintegrating me from the world.

I reconnect with what matters most and with my true nature:

  • Being outside or at the beach.
  • Reading inspiring poems and books.
  • Napping and dreaming.
  • Sitting by the fire and telling stories.
  • Savoring beautiful works of art.

My true nature really likes being with myself. I get recharged in solitude. I also enjoy solitude in community. And groups of people I know well.

For others, it’s different. There are many ways to access our own being.

“Sabbath time offers the gift of deep balance; in Sabbath time, we are valued not for what we have done or accomplished, but simply because we have received the gentle blessing of being miraculously alive,” said Wayne Muller in Sabbath.

Being Today

As Baab reminds us in her book Sabbath Keeping, “what we choose to do on the Sabbath needs to bring us rest and life over time. The challenge is discernment, experimenting to find what works for us and the people we love, what helps us catch our breath and remember who we are.” (italics added for emphasis)

Remembering the Sabbath each week has been an important part of reconnecting with myself over the years.

As rich as those days are, they’re only a fraction of my year. The other days contain a lot of doing.

Schulte asked and I often wonder as well:

What, when you really come down to the quotidian details, does it look like every day to have time to do good work, to spend quality time with your family and friends and to refresh your soul?

To be in flow throughout life and not only one day a week, I imagine life needs to look differently. A lot less doing, I bet.

And also probably a different kind of doing: less effort and more energy.

More of the art of being—in our true nature, a state of integrity—everyday.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s