Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Horror vacui

What could be more ridiculous? I have to laugh at myself, sitting around yesterday afternoon doing nothing--and feeling bad about it! Feeling guilty. At my age! Racked with pain from a horribly aching back. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, "racked." But yes, I was in pain. And yes, I did deserve an afternoon off. And no, there was nothing really pressing that had to be done. So what could be more ridiculous?

Do you share this horror of "wasting time"? It's something deeply rooted, I know not where inside me. It's true that time is precious, and that it seems to grow more precious with each passing year. What's not true is that, to be well used, it has to be by doing something. Doing nothing is sometimes precisely the best possible use of time. I know this rationally, I know it from the experience of meditation--well, that's not "doing nothing"--so why do I not believe it in the gut, where I feel the protest?

It's not just me, I know. This fear is pervasive in our culture. Not only is it impermissable to be doing nothing, you're wasting time if you're not doing several things at once. We have even invented a word for it: multi-tasking. I catch myself reading the newspaper and watching the news on television as I eat! Oh, and compose the next blog entry in my head and plan for the next few hours. That can't be good for me.

Horror vacui, it seems to me, is applicable to time as well as space. In physics, it's the theory that "nature abhors a vacuum"--long discredited, I believe. In painting, it's a critical term that describes the work of those artists who are driven to fill in every empty space on the paper or the canvas. It's a phobia, a fear of leaving any hole left unfilled, any space blank. In the matter of time, it's the fear of leaving any single second unproductive. And, of course, the fear of being late (another of my personal obsessions!) The White Rabbit syndrome.

As I say, it's all perfectly absurd!


Anonymous said...

When I participate in retreats, there are sometimes times at which no meditation, no meal, nothing is scheduled. I then sit in a chair, and try to realize that nothing bad will happen if I just sit in that chair for two hours, doing nothing. But the feeling that something bad must happen if I don't do anything is very ingrained, as you say. After worrying for a while, I typically come to enjoy the experience of doing nothing. Nonetheless, I don't give myself the freedom to do nothing in my everyday life.

Richard said...

I know exactly how you feel. So often I will simply relax, or spend time playing a game and feel guilty for not having "achieved" anything. A close friend pokes gentle fun at me for doing just this and thanks to her I've started to break the habit.

I have read it's cultural, that other cultures consider us restless. I also think, from a Buddhist perspective, it's a bad thing.

Where I can, I've actually started to resist the urge to multitask, I must admit that it feels good!