Far from a nihilistic cry, my suggestion to embrace nothingness–specifically of being and of activity level–is borne out of frustration from trying too hard for too long, both before and in recovery. I needed to be someone and to prove some things. Sitting with my own insignificance is both terrifying and freeing, joyous and upsetting. The global pandemic in conjunction with increased attention to systemic racial violence towards Black Americans has further propelled me to take a seat. The former is an unprecedented experience for those alive today and the latter is what we have, unfortunately, come to know too often. This climate vaguely reminds me of moving through the sludgy trenches of active addiction and moving into the scary new terrain of sobriety, which brings its own drawers of highs, lows, and moments of paralysis. In not knowing how to proceed, sometimes the kindest action to take for my recovery is to take none at all and to embrace my nothingness and mortality while also upholding that I am important, matter, and can be an agent of change.
How Do You “Do Nothing”?
So much of any addiction or obsessive tendency is an allergy to stillness, an orientation towards doing to get out of one’s self, which is to say, the body and feelings. This state of dis-ease and restlessness might render it seemingly impossible to take no action, but it is in inaction that one’s potential, inner energy and thoughts can cull and incubate. This period of rest and stillness is essential for growth and taking actions and speaking from a wiser place. In her book How To Do Nothing (2019), Jenny Odell’s call for “doing nothing” is within the framework of capitalism. She asks us to eschew productivity for activities that aren’t goal or agenda-oriented, such as wandering, observing, or even self-care. If recovery work feels agonizing at times, especially if it feels as though not much is changing on the outside, that perspective might be informed by an inner critical voice, but also the lens of capitalism. You might have been “doing nothing” all along.
What Do You Pay Attention To?
A “do-nothing is a pejorative term used to describe a lazy or worthless person, moralizing inactivity, which I’d like to problematize. While one definition of nothing is “the absence of meaning, value, relevance, standing, or significance,” I believe firmly in flirting with nothingness.
In his 1943 essay “Being and Nothingness,” French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argues that nothingness presents a blank canvas upon which humans can be completely free in the world.
If you find yourself mindful of previously unnoticed sights, such as the pattern on the subway floor, you might not be “doing nothing,” but you are withdrawing your attention from the familiar for something unknown or previously unknowable to you. Prior to recovery, gratitude was an intellectual concept, not a feeling I thought was available to me. Actually feeling and embodying gratitude is a shift in perspective: noticing the blessings I do have make me less likely to reach for behaviors that try to fill the nothingness.
Nothingness as Humility
Although I cringe at the saying, “Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth,” which can be geared towards argumentative newcomers, I agree with the sentiment that humility and getting “right-sized” is necessary for sobriety. In 12-Step recovery, Step 11 suggests praying and meditating to “improve conscious contact with God as we understood God.” To me, this step is about connecting with that space or nothingness inside that is calm, caring, compassionate, creative, and courageous. Nothingness is a kind of shape-shifter because it isn’t defined by something. When experiencing an uncomfortable feeling, my modus operandi can be to minimize, ignore, or run, but meditation can be a helpful tool in sitting with discomfort. Simply paying attention is a step towards freedom or choosing to rethink old paradigms. However, meditating is doing something if you are trying to get to a certain state of mind as opposed to staying open to whatever may or may not come up.
The Difficulties of “Doing Nothing”
We are socialized to be productive through optimizing time, lifehacking, and getting through with to-do lists. When faced with boredom or the prospect of no activity, feelings of vulnerability or a void may arise. I love the saying that we shouldn’t aim to feel good all the time, but get better at feeling. For me, in a moment of not doing, sidestepped feelings catch up. I can choose to cultivate presence with them and nurture interiority, or I can acknowledge them if I’m busy and make a note to come back to them.
Embracing the lull of a moment can be awkward and uncomfortable at first, but it requires shifting my attention to what is. Therein lies a kind of acceptance and permission to simply be. At that moment, I’m open to spontaneity and being surprised. In periods of letting my mind wander, or my eyes linger on a storefront window, I’m allowing curiosity to lead the way. Part of engaging with nothingness for me has been letting go of the idea that I am a completely original writer and acknowledging that I am a composite of the people and places around me who shape who I am (not) and that I am recontextualizing that which is already around me. I may make connections where there might not have been before, but like others at recovery meetings, I too am one of many.
When you catch yourself in a storm of endless thinking and activity, notice it, take a deep breath, and get curious. Be kind to yourself and know that recovering from constant activity or identification with one’s thoughts isn’t a linear process. The ultimate takeaways from this moment of new and old crises may not be apparent until months or years later. However, it is not on you to figure out how to feel about everything today. Your thoughts may be as scattered and fragmentary as everything around you. Try to trust that wherever you are with all of this is as it should be and that you are allowed to watch without analyzing or needing to have a take.