When Leonardo da Vinci was painting The Last Supper in Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Prior reportedly complained that Leonardo was spending too much time standing about, staring into the distance, lost in contemplation. The Prior wanted to see the artist constantly at work with his brush, working as hard as the labourers in the garden. Leonardo responded to the criticism by saying that “men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least.”
I’m going to ignore the pretentious feel of the first few words in Leonardo’s statement and focus on it being a reminder to all of us that everyone benefits from switching off from the busyness of life and allowing our mind to wander.
The Dutch wellness trend of niksen, which means ‘doing nothing’, caught my attention recently. Ironically, I was browsing the web and not doing very much when I happened on an article by the author Olga Mecking. In her bookNiksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing, Mecking describes niksen as doing nothing without purpose, and letting our mind meander wherever it wants to go.
Niksen is a relaxation technique to help deal with the hectic nature of life and manage stress. It could involve sitting quietly and listening to music or gazing at a view or walking aimlessly in nature. It’s about being idle and letting our mind wander without purpose.
Watching television, scrolling the internet, walking with direction, lifting weights at the gym don’t embrace the concept of niksen because all these activities requiring focused attention. Even meditation and mindfulness require us to train ourselves to notice when our mind wanders. Niksen involves setting aside a period of time to embrace the meandering nature of our mind.
For those of us – and I’m pointing the finger at myself – who thrive on ticking items off a To-Do List and scrutinising our achievements at the end of a busy day, niksen is a radical concept. Imagine our minds are a tangled ball of wool, with ideas running off in all directions. Niksen requires us to relax with the tangled mess and resist the urge to unravel the chaos.
Here’s the exciting part: when we embrace idleness and let go of always trying to be productive, our brain becomes rested and then re-engages with better focus and sustained attention. Our mind relaxes into unconscious thought patterns where solutions for problems emerge and new ideas are generated. Niksen helps us be more creative.
Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors, reportedly welcomed periods of doing nothing because it improved his creativity and problem-solving prowess. Isaac Newton happened upon his theory of gravitation while strolling in his garden and seeing an apple fall from a tree. Archimedes came up with a solution for a tricky problem after he decided to relax in the bath.
It’s time for me to switch off my devices, push aside my To-Do List, stare out the window and do nothing. Hope you find moments in your day when you can do likewise.
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