The Art of Sitting and Being

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.”  (Sir John Lubbock)

[Author’s note: I think of this as the ultimate summer post, which is my way of saying it first appeared on May 31, 2016. Even writers need to pry themselves loose from their laptops and kick back once in a while. If you see me on my deck, give a wave. Enjoy the fine weather.]

Some years ago, after a day of rambling through the 300+ booths of the Paradise City Arts Festival, I suggested to my husband Ed that we sit and be for a while. This was one of our early excursions together, and he had yet to master the lingo of his beloved. “Sit and be?” he echoed. “What’s that?” Somewhat taken aback—how do you reduce the irreducible?—I stammered, “Well, you just sit … and you be.”

Most of us feel keenly the press of time. Deadlines lurk around every corner. The rent is due. Taxes are due. Biological clocks are ticking. Careers must be launched and once launched, must be advanced. Running through it all, like a Greek chorus whose role it is to underscore the message, are advertisements exhorting us to Act Now. Don’t Waste Another Minute. Hurry! Be The First To …

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The MO of modern life is constant motion. There must be something to show for every moment. Like some throwback to the 16th century, we have an almost Calvinistic need to justify our existence through keeping busy. What were you accomplishing on the night of June 6? Woe to the person without an answer. When did you last hear someone confess to doing nothing?

Sleep Bah, Humbug!

As a kid, I was horrified when I learned that fish lack eyelids and so cannot sleep in the sense that mammals do. I walked about for weeks trying to imagine what it would be like to be awake 24/7, unable to take a break from the demands of the onrushing world.

Yet, by an extension of logic, if no moment of life must be “wasted,” then we waste 6-8 good hours every night sleeping. Totally unconscious. Not producing one damn thing. (Note: I just googled “guilt about wasting time sleeping” and a whole slew of forums on the topic popped up. People worrying they are wasting their lives by sleeping. People worrying they are wasting their lives over worrying about sleeping. Even one insomniac who confessed to suffering guilt about trying and failing to sleep. People, get a grip.)

But we know we need sleep. Without it, the systems that power all that frantic waking activity break down. Our brains turn sludgy and after a while, we know not what we do. So, we accept (some of us grudgingly) that some portion of every 24 hours will be sacrificed to catching ZZZs. SIT BE CROP deadlines magnet

We have a harder time with the concept of resting when we’re awake. And yet, there is a powerful body of research that suggests we accomplish more when we take frequent breaks. Barreling through our to-do list like automatons on speed stresses virtually every system in our bodies, lowering our mental capacity and performance.

We pretty much know this, that our brains are in danger of frying from the endless rush and craziness, so we seek various compromises. We meditate while jogging. Strap music to our heads while raking leaves or cleaning the kitchen. Keep up with Facebook and Twitter while (ostensibly) vegging with a movie.

But stopping, truly coming to a FULL STOP—we hardly know what to do with ourselves. How can we sit and be? Wouldn’t we go nuts with the boredom?

What’s So Great About Doing Nothing

Calvinist hustle aside, history offers us some compelling examples of the riches to be mined from sitting and being:

SIT BE Newton_appleNewton was not “busy” searching for gravity when he first got the idea of it. No, he was just sitting under an apple tree, doing nothing in particular, when the notion of gravity hit him on the head, so to speak.

In the summer of 1916, Mary Gordon and her future husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley were just hanging out watching a thunderstorm with their friends, the poet Lord Byron and author John Polidori, in Geneva, Switzerland, when one of them proposed a contest to see who could write the best horror story. Mary Gordon Shelley won with her little gothic tale Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus.

I would argue that just sitting and being has inspired more discoveries and literature than any outburst of manic energy. It simply opens up your head once you shut off the distractions.

But what if you plunk your derrière down and nothing genius comes to mind? The workable design for a teletransporter is not revealed to you, nor the plot for a sequel to War and Peace. That’s okay. In fact, that’s really the point of sitting and being. It doesn’t require you to do anything.CROP LEAP NET charybdis and scylla

We used to be a nation of porch sitters. People would hang out on their stoop or veranda and just be. If there were two of them on the same porch, the conversation might go like this:

Person #1: Stars are out tonight.

(Minutes tick by.)

Person #2: Yep.

What I recall most clearly from that crafts fair with Ed is nothing about the fair itself—not the sprawling warehouses crammed with hundreds of booths, nor the vast selection of foods, not even the band. My memory of that day centers on the 15 or 20 minutes (we weren’t checking our watches) we sat together on a bench outside the exhibition buildings, relishing the early October sunshine, letting the hum of a busy world pass us by. Maybe we exchanged a few words. Laughed at something.

What I know for sure is this: We were completely at peace.

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16 thoughts on “The Art of Sitting and Being

  1. Lovely article. Reminded me of favorite travel moments — a leisurely stroll along the Seine, a quiet walk along a beach in Florida, gazing over the rooftops of Paris from the windy roof of a department store … I feel more relaxed just thinking of these things.

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    1. Thanks Toni. As I mentioned in a reply above, peaceful moments often come back to me as I ride my bike through the woods, and those moments I now understand are among the most significant of my life.

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  2. As your constant companion and straight man, I wholeheartedly endorse the concept of sitting and being. I have never discovered anything nearly as weighty (!) as gravity, but I have found new reasons to be happy, to be good, to be hopeful. I loved your meditation on S&B; thanks for giving a name to one of my favorite activities.

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  3. What lovely thoughts. Amy your musing reminds me of the old Vermont joke. I do not remember it verbatim, but the gist of it is that old Eben and Jeb are relaxing on the front porch in silence. Finally Jeb says to Jeb, Sometimes It’s Good To Just Set And Think. After long silence, Jeb answers, Yes, But Sometimes It’s Better To Just Set.

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  4. I’m a big fan of these mental/physical breaks of doing nothing. They are so necessary for our health and creativity. I probably don’t do enough of it. Also a fan of the expression that we’re human BEINGS, not human DOINGS. So much of our worth comes from “doing,” when that’s not where our dignity and value comes from. Placing too much importance on doing with regard to our value can have some pretty terrible consequences.

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    1. We’re human BEINGS, not human DOINGS–I like that. I was away a year ago when this post first ran, so I somehow missed responding (this is what happens when you’re relaxed and enjoying life😄) but I hope you’ve had a year both peaceful and productive, and most significant, a time of happiness with your life.

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    1. I hear you, Mary. My clock seems to spin through the 24 hours in half that time. I have to constantly remind myself to breathe, pause, chill. When I’m cycling through the woods to relieve the tension of writing, I often remember moments from life that have profoundly moved me in one way or another. It strikes me now that all those moments happened when I was doing nothing.

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  5. I found this as I was going through my emails and I have to say… I needed to read this today! It’s so easy to get caught up in my to-do lists and miss the most important things. Thanks for sharing, Amy!

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    1. LOL Cindy, better late than never (I completely sympathize with wading through mountains of e-mails). I’m glad it helped. And you’re right–our to-do lists often miss the most important things.

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