Distraction, stillness and the lost art of doing nothing

“So, in an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still. “-Pico Iyer
” I’d like you just to take a moment to think, when did you last take any time to do nothing? Just 10 minutes, undisturbed? And when I say nothing, I do mean nothing. So that’s no emailing, texting, no Internet, no TV, no chatting, no eating, no reading, not even sitting there reminiscing about the past or planning for the future. Simply doing nothing.” -Andy Puddicombe

As week two of summer vacation begins I have been reflecting a lot on movement.   On one hand I have been using the time to slow down, to allow my mind to stop racing and to stop worrying about the next lesson or the next project. On the other hand, I have also been trying to slow down the pace of my movement. Normally, summer vacation for me has always been a time to race off to new places and fill my time with constant movement. As I look back, my frantic movement was in a way just a replacement for the endless running of my mind during the school year. This year has been different. With Peruvian immigration laws keeping me in Peru until January 1, I have been forced to slow down and I love it. Rather than rushing off to a new country or racing around Peru, I have been remarkably still. My days have consisted of surfing, reading, running and spending time with friends. I have purposefully tried to limit my screen time, and by not constantly checking social media and email, I have felt my mind relax.

 During this time I had the chance to watch two great TED talks. The first by Pico Iyer stresses the importance of stillness and reflection in our daily lives. As a travel writer, Iyer is constantly on the move, but in this talk he discusses how creating stillness in his life has really shaped who he is as a person. Using the movement travel to think about daily life, Iyer points out how life has become increasingly fast paced. We rush from place to place and fill the in between moments with our cell phones and other devices. What we are left with is a constant stream of motion, both mental and physical, which leaves us feeling exhausted and frayed.

 Similarly, in his talk on mindfulness, Andy Puddicombe reflects on how little of our time is actually spent doing “nothing.” Starting with the question, “when did you last take any time to do nothing,” Puddicombe made me realize how much of my time is spent either doing or thinking. For me, even when I am surfing, my mind is often racing about some idea, some thought or some anxiety. It is as if I am never truly “do nothing.” I enjoyed Puddicombe’s talk as it was honest, to the point and made the simple suggestion of taking 10 minutes to simply do nothing, worry about nothing and just relax into the present moment.

 Both talks made me think about the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” In the book, the narrator at one point says:

 “We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. ”

 It is that “day-to-day” shallowness which I think has become ever more present in our daily lives. Hurrying from place to place, rushing from message to message, furiously scrolling through the never ending deluge known as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Call me delusional, but it seems that we have entered a time of anti-stillness. It is almost as if we are all deathly afraid of what might happen if we just stopped, even for just a few minutes. I think it is this pause that we (I especially) need to build into both daily life and school.

 Now I am not saying that we need to give it all up, become monks and never travel anywhere again. What I am saying is that we need to discus stillness more, both in our daily lives and especially within the field of education. I feel that in our rush to solve the “crisis in education” with technology, we have left out one very important component, which is a discussion about the demands of technology. Instead, I almost feel that we as educators have become the preachers of technology.

 We ask our students to constantly check their progress via Powerschool, ManageBac or whatever reporting system we may be using. In our quest to keep students “connected” and “engaged”, we share endless Google Docs with them in addition to asking them to stay constantly connected via Twitter and Facebook. On top of that, building student “autonomy” in the classroom often ends up trading lecture for endless internet research. This research often ends in more production in the form of iMovies, Keynotes, Glogsters, or the never ending assortment of ways to creatively regurgitate information. Through technology and the “demands” of everyday life, school has become synonymous with busyness  and production. We hesitate giving students any time that may be considered free, for fear they might “waste” it.

 All of this leaves me wondering. When was the last time we simply asked students to be still, to just quietly “sit”with an idea and not write about it, talk about it, or make a presentation on it? When was the last time we had an open discussion with students about the impact of technology on their daily lives. When was the last time we questioned the assumptions built into the phrase “digital natives?” When was the last time we had an honest conversation about the “day-to-day shallowness” that has resulted from all of this busyness?

 This post is not an answer to these questions. This post is not proposing an end to technology. This post is not a criticism of all things educational technology.

This post is the start of a conversation on distraction, stillness and the lost art of “doing nothing.”


1. Pico Iyer: The Art of Stillness

2. Andy Puddicombe: All it Takes is 10 Mindful Minutes