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On Doing Less

doing less

Lying in bed and staring into the darkness behind my closed eyes, I try in vain to focus on my breath. Instead, my mind wandered to the ways in which I could be pushing myself to do more. Driven by my own dedication and the fervor and opportunity present around me in graduate school, my mind whirrs ceaselessly. I want so dearly to positively affect those around me, but somewhere amid the flotsam of our first semester, I have forgotten how to effectively do this for myself.

I am not alone in this. I can see my peers staying up into the wee hours of the morning with me and beyond classroom walls I can see a city teeming with frenetic energy. The trope, “the city that never sleeps” takes on a dark, new meaning in this context, when we see the city as a mass of sleepless individuals.

What drives us and how do we forget how to stop? For me, feeling that I are near a point of arrival that has made me feel a need to speed up. There is something wonderful, and terrifying about being near a goal, or in a goal. The momentum you have built up, until that point, is suddenly racing at a pace for which you find yourself unprepared. The image of a lumberjack running on a log in the river comes to mind; at some point in the not-so-distant past, I felt myself running on my log, watching it start to spin out of control under my feet with no choice but to jump into the cold, rushing river below. And falling into that icy water was both awful and splendid because I wasn’t just doing less at that moment, I was all but doing nothing. I was off and it was blissful.

That is what I felt like at the end of my first semester, and only within and after that experience has it become fully apparent to me how important it is to deliberately practice “turning off.” And I think that the word, “off,” is especially important here. If we say “down time”, or if we say “time to chill” or “relax,” that can be associated with other activity—Netflix, reading, or other diverting, solitary moments. Something about the word “off” feels empty, it implies that something that is always on is absent rather than simply distracted.

Writing this now feels obvious and silly and perhaps even a bit embarrassing to me because I grew up with parents who woke me up on Saturday mornings to meditate, a little girl by the window trying to focus on her breathing before pancakes and cartoons. Perhaps a less stressful day awaited a younger me, but still, here I am, so many years later: I do not lack awareness of the need for inner quiet, but I have forgotten how to find it in the face of a feeling that I must not let anyone down, myself included.

There was a moment in the early morning over the holiday break when I was sitting alone in my mother’s living room, warm coffee in hand, staring out the window and weighed down by heavy thoughts of the future. Beside me was a small, thin book by Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Sit. I flipped through the pages and almost laughed in some heady mixture of joy and relief and exhaustion when the following appeared on the page before me:

“Many of us keep trying to do more and more. We do things because we think we need to, because we want to make money, accomplish something, take care of others, or make our lives and our world better. Often we do things without thinking, because we are in the habit of doing them, because someone asks us to, or because we think we should. But if the foundation of our being is not strong enough, then the more we do, the more troubled our society becomes.”

There is something magical about recognizing yourself in the words of another. That’s part of what I love about writing, design, and research and in seeing myself in Thich Nhat Hanh’s words I felt a change. I felt the tiny jolt of energy that I needed to take the first step towards moments of being “off” and building a stronger personal foundation.

I am still very much learning how to do less, and I think that means different things for different people. For me, a starting place is yoga. My mind has always been busy, which is a strength and a challenge, but slow, deliberate, physical movement coupled with measured breath forces me into the present when I cannot arrive there by logic alone. In other moments, it is pausing, recognizing your thoughts and their patterns, and reframing them more reasonably. Doing less can mean truly doing less, and slowing down. Some days, when I am feeling low, “less” will mean physically listing the things that happened that day for which I am grateful.

For all of these, the resulting reaction is similar: my heartbeat slows, my mind empties, and I feel each muscle stretch and contract. I feel that in this moment, all is well, that there is always time to do more good in the world. I focus on my breath and stare into the darkness behind my closed eyes and feel a soft smile on my lips and there it is…“off.”

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