Indonesia 2012: All About Nothing


Not a bad spot to practice doing nothing

Gili Air, Indonesia

My best friend B and I have, from time to time over the years, discussed and pondered our mutual lack of what is known as a “hobby”. Considering so many people seem to have them, we wonder if it’s unusual that we don’t. We like things, of course, like music and books and movies and wine, but never to the extent of special interest. We don’t collect stamps or knit or buy antiques or play an instrument. We don’t know if it means anything that we don’t do these kinds of things.

I’ve been on this tiny island of Gili Air for 10 days now, and of all the places in the world it is here, where there is never much to do anyway, that I have decided to try a new hobby: doing nothing.

There are those who will decide that doing nothing isn’t a hobby. They will say it doesn’t require a special skill set or interest, or any amount of passion; but I’m going to disagree with that. I realize on this trip to my little island that doing nothing is something I’m not very good at, and that I have to focus on it and work at in order to succeed. It can actually be pretty hard. It has been made even more challenging by the fact that I’ve been working much more than expected during this vacation and haven’t been able to “check out” in any real way for very long.

But I did manage one full day’s attempt at my new hobby, and I think I succeeded. It took me three hours to rise, eat breakfast and eventually leave the lush, green compound of bungalows where I stay. I walked with no destination in mind; I stopped whenever and wherever I felt like it, and then carried on. I stood waist-deep in the ocean and stared out at the mountains of Lombok and willed my mind to empty. I swung on a tree swing on the beach. I lost track of time. I stood out front on my friend’s bar and restaurant for an hour (or two?), sipping water and watching locals and tourists pass by. I moved slowly and deliberately. I didn’t check my email. Each time the urge to make a plan for the coming hours (“I suppose I should snorkel or read or go running”) entered my head, I gently shooed it away.

If there is any place where doing nothing is encouraged, it is here on Gili Air. Never have I encountered another people who have better mastered the art of doing nothing that the locals of this island. The Indonesian culture is the only one I personally know of that builds structures, called berugaks, that are intended expressly for this purpose. A berugak is generally raised bamboo platform on wood stilts and with a thatched roof. They are positioned out front of homes and businesses, usually next to the road. Locals (usually men) sit around in them, smoking and drinking coffee and napping and sometimes talking. They don’t often play games or read in them; they don’t fix things in them or decorate them. They just sit up there and watch the world go by, thinking about who-knows-what. It’s a fabulous pastime that they all seem to have or make time for, despite having jobs and families and responsibilities.

Committing to this new hobby of mine will be particularly difficult when I get back to my life in Canada, where so many of us are masters of busy-ness and where we seem to move, think, eat and talk at hyper-speed; but I’m going to try. I will try because I realize there is tremendous value in slowing down, in the absence of planning, in letting the day or the hour take me where it may, in tuning in to the rhythm of a place and moment and trusting that whatever I think needs to get done can wait until later. Even if I can do it for just a few minutes out of every day, I will have succeeded.

What are your thoughts on doing nothing? Are you good at it?

My aunt emailed me the poem below after she read this blog post. I think it’s a perfect add-on.

Time to Stop & Stare

What is this life if full of care
We have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep, or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

William Henry Davies 1871 – 1940

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