This is so late at night for a blog post, but dammit, I promised I’d do at least two a week, and I’m going to do at least two a week.
I’m in an Asian Religions class, and we are finishing up a unit on Daoism, a tradition whose philosophy is known for its emphasis on natural harmony, non-action, and balance (of yin and yang but also just general balance). Typically when we begin studying a religion, we receive an assignment to practice some aspect of that religion over the course of a few days in order to better understand it.
The assignment for this week was wuwei, the Daoist principle of non-action, emptiness, “useful uselessness.” Wuwei emphasizes becoming a “blank slate,” letting go of desires and feelings. “Useful uselessness” refers to an intrinsic value in just existing, as opposed to the extrinsic value of usefulness to society valued by another major Chinese religion, Confucianism (and, of course, by most of the West). The specifics of the assignment were that we should spend thirty minutes on three separate days practicing “non-action,” either by sitting quietly or through the Daoist practice of tai chi.
I chose to sit quietly. After all, how hard can it be to sit still and quietly and clear my mind for half an hour a day? It would be good for me!
So last Thursday, I plopped down in a beanbag chair, put in some earplugs, and set a timer.
And it was extremely difficult. I couldn’t clear my mind at all. In fact, it seemed that my brain jumped from one sundry object to the other even faster than normal. I was thinking about what else I had to do today, about random memories, about how much time was left on the timer, about what I was going to write for my reflection on the assignment.
I am always, at every moment of my day, building or planning something in my head, even if that something is as simple as when I’m going to slot in time to work on an assignment. I have often heard the saying from other writers: “I write because I would go crazy if I didn’t.” I thought that that didn’t apply to me until I tried to do this assignment. Then I realized that I am constantly authoring my own life as it happens, writing ahead in my brain, stringing together a plot—and that without the ability to do that, I really would go crazy. I’m not only philosophically opposed to the ideas of uselessness and non-action; they make me genuinely uncomfortable. (And not just because I like Confucianism better.)
And why? On Tuesday in class, we discussed how our assignment went, and much of the class had the same trouble that I did. Many of us were unable to sit still and shut off all of the intrusive thoughts of responsibilities, wonderings, little daily pieces of story. Trying to be still for half an hour filled us with a quiet, anxious sort of panic (one girl in my class even said that after 10 minutes of attempting to completely empty her mind, she had to get up and go to the gym because she was so unnerved by it).
We live in a society where the strings of tasks to be completed never cease. You finish one day’s work knowing that you should probably be getting started on tomorrow’s. My classmate and friend Caleb pointed out in our discussion on Tuesday morning that he is “afraid of free time,” because it means he’s probably forgetting something that he has to do.
I can sympathize. I know that whenever I have a few hours between classes, I make a beeline for the library, because whenever I have something to be working on (which is always), I’m damn well going to be working on it. (This includes writing, by the way, not just schoolwork. If I’m not working on one of those two things, there’s a little anxious voice in the back of my head telling me that I should be.)
And what does that say about me and about all of us millennials, that we literally get anxious trying to keep a few minutes to ourselves?
A few weeks ago, I was so overloaded with stress that my body revolted against me. (That’s how I choose to classify the random brutal wisdom-tooth-extraction-site agony that took over my end of January, at least.) I had something of a miniature life-changing experience and realized that I needed to cut back on everything I was doing. I needed to have free time to spend doing unproductive things, like napping and watching Netflix and scrolling through social media on my phone. And I needed to be able to do those things without constantly guilting myself about it.
I also needed to worry about more than just my brain’s health and robustness: I needed to remember to take care of my body, too. That’s new to me, because I’ve always pretty much ignored my physical health as long as I stayed the same jeans size. And I am the same jeans size, but I’m also tired, stressed, and super out of shape. So I started outlining food rules to cut down on all the junk I tend to shovel into my mouth solely because I’m doing work and need something to get me through it. I got serious about my P.E. class, and soon I’m going to be one of those gym rats who’s always talking about “leg day” and how much I can bench. (Annoying, I know. And at the moment I bench a very pitiful number, in case you’re wondering.)
Even though the Daoist wuwei assignment did the opposite of helping me quiet my mind, I know that there are ways I’ve experienced a calming of the inner to-do list hurricane: when I’m snuggled up in bed (nap optional) or at the end of a good yoga class. When I’m curled up with a very good book or after leaving Adoration. When I’m laughing hard enough to choke at dinner with my friends.
I’ve had to learn how to balance my life over and over again since I was young, and now especially that I am on my own in college. But that balance is beginning to include new dimensions. I’ve learned that it’s a holistic process and it means more than just keeping a tidy agenda and turning in my homework on time. I like to think that’s what the Daoists’ point is, anyway.
Image by Paxson Woelber.