Nothing Leads to Everything
In our ongoing exploration of Alexander Technique and non-doing, last week I had my college students read and discuss Ross Gay’s essay “Loitering is Delightful” (caution: profanity). Then I assigned them a challenging task: take 20 minutes to do… nothing much. Loiter, take their time. Take a walk on campus or wander the stacks in the library, or look at a painting in the campus gallery. But no phones, no homework, nothing that feels “productive.”
I also challenged myself to do the assignment, but unlike my students, I didn’t go more than a few feet beyond the classroom, as I felt compelled to stay and guard their things. So I looked at the posters on the music department noticeboard. I stood in the sun. I walked on cracks in the sidewalk. I wound in and out of chairs in the classroom. I entertained myself the way a three-year-old might, resisting the lure of my phone or even the book I had in my bag.
Not surprisingly, I got bored pretty fast. But I have cultivated curiosity about boredom. This curiosity is facilitated by three kids who have no compunction about coming to me and announcing, in a loud whine, “I’m bored!” As if that’s a huge burden. As if I’m supposed to fix it. “Good,” I reply, annoyingly. “Now something interesting can happen.”
Now, I thought, something interesting can happen.
And something interesting and delightful did happen. As I walked the cracks, as I wound through the chairs, the ever-present mental chatter quieted. I had a sense of expansion, openness, presence. The sort of stuff that is promised us by meditation. Which is maybe a fancy word for forcing myself to stop doing stuff long enough to get bored and see what happens.
It occurred to me in the discussion of Gay’s essay that there is a deep irony in taking 20 minutes out of production/consumption when those minutes are ticking by at private college tuition rate. I have yet to check in with the students about whether they feel those minutes were “wasted.” But the goal of non-doing is not to never do anything. It’s not a “turn on, tune in, drop out” mentality. It’s instead an interruption from compulsive doing long enough for something interesting to happen. To have a choice, to have an idea, to hear myself think.
The rat race is pretty predictable. If I keep frantically doing at my normal pace, I have a pretty good idea of what “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” brings. But if I stop… If I take my time… If I do nothing for long enough to get bored… It might lead to anything.
It might lead to everything.