"So," I said t Michelle during our first session together, "if you were living your ideal life, what would you do today?" It's a standard opening I use with almost every client, and Michelle gave me the standard response.
"Really?" I asked. "Nothing at all?"
"That's right," Michelle said, nodding wearily but emphatically.
"Fantastic!" I said. "Let's get started!" Then I shut my mouth, settled back into my chair, and surreptitiously looked at my watch. Michelle lasted longer than most. We enjoyed nearly 15 whole seconds of stillness before she became unbearably nervous.
"What is this?" she asked. "What do you want me to do?"
"Nothing," I said. "We're here to get you what you really want, and you want to do nothing. So..." I shrugged and fell silent again.
Five seconds. Then Michelle protested in a voice halfway between exasperation and fear, "Well, I didn't mean right now."
This, too, was typical. My observation of people in general, not just my clients, is that we desperately want to take a break from our hectic, overscheduled lives—but not right now. Try it: Put down this magazine and do nothing at all for ten minutes. No planning, no worrying, no activity of any kind. Just ten minutes of empty time.
Did you do it?
I thought not.
If I'm wrong, if you seized those few minutes and thoroughly enjoyed them, congratulations. If you'd rather undergo oral surgery, welcome to the vast majority of the human race. Empty time is a powerful medicine that can make us more joyful and resilient, but it's strangely hard to swallow. In our culture, the very word empty has negative connotations: loss, need, desolation, hopelessness. Our ambivalence toward doing nothing creates what psychologists call an approach-avoidance response: We yearn for a powerful source of liberation that is right under our noses, and we'll do almost anything to avoid it.
Doing Everything, Accomplishing Nothing
The result of this unconscious psychological arm wrestling is that we fritter away our lives. We don't do the things that would bring our dreams to fruition, but we don't embrace emptiness, either. Instead, we play a hundred games of computer solitaire or stay on the phone with anyone—friends, family, wrong-number dialers—just to fill the time.
Twenty-seven centuries ago, the philosopher Lao-tzu pointed out that while we join beams to make houses and mold clay into pots, the spaces inside are where we live and store our treasures. "We work with being," Lao-tzu said, "but nonbeing is what we use." The same is true of our daily schedules: They are most useful when they hold open stretches of time in which the joy of being can occur. When we don't honor that perspective by spending time with emptiness, we tend to forget it altogether. Our lives become an exhausting sprint with no finish line, no real purpose, and no way to win.
We Hear You!