A few years ago, I came across a little book with the fantastic title Do Nothing to Change Your Life. Finally, I thought. Someone who speaks my language.
We live in culture which is obsessed with doing, working, and achieving. Religion is partly to blame. For all the talk of justification by faith not deeds, the church at the reformation cracked down on idleness. The numbers of holidays and feast days were cut. Monks and nuns were turfed out of monasteries and convents so they could do something a bit more productive. As sociologists and historians have long observed, modern capitalism was built on the back of a distinctly protestant work ethic.
But there’s a lot to be said for doing less, and sometimes for doing nothing. Navel-gazing nowadays is a synonym for indulgent or obsessive self-reflection. But it used to be a form of spirituality.
The phrase comes from a mystical form of prayer known as Hesychasm, practiced by the monks in the Eastern Orthodox church, which placed an emphasis on prolonged contemplation, often with the use of mantras and special breathing techniques, whilst focusing on the navel, seen as the centre of the body. It’s a form of meditation which has parallels in Hinduism, Buddhism, and in the contemporary practice of mindfulness: a deliberate attempt to slow down our bodies and our minds.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. As a priest, I’m meant to go on retreat at least once a year. But I’ve never been very good at them. Too often I use a retreat as a chance to catch up on my reading, or find myself cursing the lack of wi-fi or phone coverage. But really, a retreat should be a period of doing nothing – in a structured organised kind-of-a-way.
A friend of mine took a month off work recently to walk the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, and came back raving. Sometimes, he said, you fall into company with other pilgrims, and there are all sorts of interesting conversations to be had on the way. But at other times, you can be alone on the road for hours, and you find yourself entering a strange meditative state, as you put one foot in front of the other, in silence, for mile after mile.
These practices – where we slow down, and stop doing and thinking – are good for us. They give us perspective. They make us healthier and happier. And if we can’t find the time for a retreat or a pilgrimage, we can nevertheless find time for a silent stroll now and then along the river – not jogging with the goal of keeping fit, not listening to music or the latest podcast – but walking slowly, meditatively, in silence.
“What are you doing for Lent?” is a question people ask at this time of year. Giving up alcohol or chocolate is the answer for some. Not giving anything up, but choosing to take on something new, is what works for others.
As for me, what am I doing for Lent? I’m doing nothing. But this year I’m really trying to do it properly.
* Do Nothing to Change Your Life: Discovering what happens when you stop, is a book by Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, available here.