Life: Actively trying to be inactive

My mother apologized a few years back for keeping me so BUSY in childhood. Her mother did it to her, and while her family was Catholic, it still felt like a “Protestant Work Ethic” problem: busy people of all ages with no time to think will be docile and have no time to sin! Business = godliness!

Being “busy” to the point of not really having a life is a difficult habit to break, and so there are self-help articles about how other cultures do it. Wrapping the idea of rest or passivity in labels and costumes from another culture feels hip and exotic.

My favorite versions of these are my various Zen Buddhist books, which encourage us to sit, breathe, and observe our thoughts. (I have a list of friends who confide that they MUST NOT, under any circumstances, be alone with their thoughts, and I honestly worry for them.)

The Dutch are hip and have a word/concept for what we in California might call “chilling,” about being in and aware of your surroundings without multitasking, which is a nice reminder that such things are possible.

Perspective | The Dutch have a name for doing nothing. It’s called niksen, and we need more of it.

Last year, I quit a terrible job in corporate middle management. I was stressed all the time, traveling once or twice a month, occasionally internationally, and work followed me everywhere: from the first email in the morning, sometimes as early as 5 a.m., until the last texts late into the evening.


My holiday time off – several consecutive days in a row! – is jarring, since I’ve been doing metaphorical firefighting for so long that moments of calm almost make me uncomfortable.

As a creative person, I need this time to unwind and think my own thoughts, yet can still feel like I need to be “busy” with work that OTHERS deem “productive,” and that will never get me anywhere I want to go.

It’s nice to be reminded that I can (with effort and practice) relax and appreciate being alive without judging myself harshly for doing so.

Book: No Mud, No Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh

Book cover with SHINY letters! Nicely designed.

No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering
by Thich Nhat Hanh
published by Parallax Press, Berkeley, California

I own and have read MANY books by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and talented author of many books on Zen Buddhism. I’ve seen him speak in an auditorium here in the Bay Area. No matter how many times I hear or read him, I find great clarity and some useful insights into Buddhist philosophy. While I joined a temple of a different Buddhist sect for several years and enjoyed meditating and studying with them, I return to TNH’s work frequently.

TNH’s work helps me be more thoughtful about living in the present moment, a key concept of Buddhist study. He writes about it many different ways in different books, but the key concepts always remain the same.

This particular book emphasizes that suffering of various sorts is a part of life, and that we need to acknowledge that. This isn’t some book about faking optimism, or always looking on the bright side of life [insert Monty Python song here]: it’s about admitting that our suffering is real, but not letting it consume us. (It’s refreshing to read this, when we know people who force optimism on us for their own comfort…) Discussions of how we compound our suffering by dwelling on particular misfortunes and berating ourselves over them ring very true, and can help us manage misfortune more thoughtfully, without tearing ourselves apart.

Like many of TNH’s other books, this has the main thematic writing plus a supplement with a different structure. This time, it is a sort of workshop to help us resolve conflicts with loved ones through being present and thoughtful about emotional pain. The words seem simple, but the approach is highly thoughtful, and presenting these concepts in such a clear fashion makes them less intimidating. Just the first step – telling someone dear to you who is in conflict with you that you are really THERE for them, fully present, that they have your full attention – this rings really true to me, and I can name times when that first step alone could have de-escalated difficult personal situations.

This is another thoughtful, easy to read, problem-solving book written in a calming, reasonable tone. I’m glad I picked it up.

Book: Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

My copy

Gift from the Sea
by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
published by Pantheon Books, New York
1955 (with 2005 updates)

Green Apple Books recommended this small book years ago, and their staff recommendations are EXCELLENT. I enjoyed this book VERY MUCH when I first got it there, and I was delighted to find this edition to reread.

A brief summary: the author makes a strong case for taking time for self-care in the form of peaceful solitude. She argues that women of her day had been raised to give themselves away, and to have anything to give, you need to renew and care for yourself. Lindbergh realized this on a solo vacation, away from her husband and FIVE children; while she enjoyed the companionship of her sister near the end of her trip, she felt whole again after having time with her own thoughts; after living simply and without concern for impressing others; and after having an open schedule without obligations to fulfil.

She also reflects on marriage, raising children, competing views of the role of women in society, and her own privilege.

Readers of my time will see this book as promoting “mindfulness,” enjoyment of the present moment, and a call to examine the noise of materialism to find a more meaningful peace.

It’s a concise, thoughtful, well-worded book on making time to be yourself. This particular edition has an essay by the author’s daughter, plus an afterword in which the author reflects on feminism and American women’s evolving expectations and achievements twenty-plus years later. I found it revelatory the first time I read it, and while I am now more steeped in formal mindfulness training, I still appreciate its concision and clarity.

What I didn’t know when I read it the first time is that Mrs. Lindbergh’s life was more complicated than I knew. I knew her famous aviator husband took a shine to Hitler; I knew her first child was kidnapped for ransom and murdered; I knew she’d written other books. I did NOT know until I was looking up her aviation accomplishments in her Wikipedia profile that one of those books was pro-fascist (!!) and widely condemned, that she’d agreed with her husband’s favorable view of Hitler, and that the book I’m reviewing was part of her efforts to redeem her reputation. Thanks to the same article, I also know that her husband had affairs AND a secret family in Europe (two sisters bore him kids, and he had 7 with at least the three women now known of), which means that I’m ESPECIALLY glad that she did some self-care, because YIKES.