Active Inactivity

Serenity by Alberto P. Veiga (CC BY 2.0)

A good friend of mine, Eddie Rhoades, once said to me, “Rob, there are too many things in the world that go ‘beep’.” In many of our lives today, amidst the incessant clamor of the modern world, we often forget to leave room for the quiet. I first learned about the idea of “active inactivity” in a small but powerful book, Zen and the Martial Arts by Joe Hyams.

Active inactivity isn’t as easy as it may seem at first blush. It isn’t just not doing something . . . it’s doing nothing on purpose. Nothing physical, like taking a walk or a nap. Nothing mental, like thinking about a problem at work or planning a vacation. Nothing. Well, nothing except breathing, which we normally don’t even think about. Try doing nothing but thinking about your breathing for fifteen minutes sometime tomorrow. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out . . . If you don’t make it the first time, don’t be hard on yourself. It really is harder than it sounds. Let it go and try again the next day, and the next.

Claude Debussy said, “Music is the silence between the notes.”

When I’m being well-disciplined, I try to do nothing on purpose for fifteen minutes before starting a writing session. If I succeed, my mind seems to be clearer, calmer, and it’s easier to focus on the day’s work. Active inactivity can tame wild mind-monkeys. And it’s a gift you can give to yourself, with a little practice.

In An Irish Miracle, young Dillon Connolly discovers perfect stillness for the first time in the Irish countryside. Raised on a bustling farm in northwestern Ohio, it’s a new and wonderful experience, one that evokes surprisingly powerful emotions.