One of most annoying burdens of growing up Protestant is the nagging belief that idleness is a sin. Summer is definitely the time to throw off this sadly mistaken belief.

The truth is, doing nothing is arguably quite virtuous. When we are truly idle we burn no fossil fuels, harm no fellow creatures, and annoy no one.

Yet people stay busy – and often annoyed – even on vacation. They load up campers, hitch on boats, and head for the nearest freeway. Or they strap on backpacks, climb into kayaks, or fly away on airplanes. All of these activities require planning, buying, burning and consuming.

Once I read in a garden magazine about a man who decided to spend his vacation closely examining his own back yard. After two weeks, he reported, he had only made it halfway to the back fence. He had spent most of his time on his hands and knees with a magnifying glass, observing the insect life in his garden. He said it was like visiting another world.

Purposeful idleness calms the mind, lowers the blood pressure, and restores all the scattered pieces of our selves to their proper places.

I think about him often — both when I see insects whose lives are a mystery to me, and when I look at the stars and think about what is little and what is big. I think his adventure was probably equal to that of any astronaut. And he didn’t burn up any rocket fuel.

But of course, he was actually doing something. It takes a little more focus to really do nothing.

This is especially true at home, where there are always unfinished — to say nothing of un-started — household projects. We need to remind ourselves periodically that these projects are unimportant; that telephones won’t break from going unanswered, and that it is perfectly legal to hang a Do Not Disturb sign on a door to a house rather than a hotel room. (It gives the neighbors something to talk about, too.)

For those who garden, learning to be idle at home is a special challenge. The weeds, after all, are out there growing at every moment of the day and night. But the very most beautiful sight in my back yard comes from a neighbor’s neglected corner, where an un-pruned, un-fertilized rambling red rose has climbed up an old plum tree and cascaded artfully over the back fence. Such reminders of the benefits of inaction are everywhere, if only we think to look for them.

But to develop the fullest appreciation of idleness, it is necessary to turn to the Buddhist masters for instruction. (No one, after all, talks about the Buddhist work ethic.) The Buddhist practice of meditation has worked its way into our mainstream culture because sitting still and doing nothing reliably makes people feel better. Purposeful idleness calms the mind, lowers the blood pressure, and restores all the scattered pieces of our selves to their proper places.

But you don’t have to be a Buddhist to behave like one, especially during the summer.


The Pacific Ocean | George Le Masurier photo

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