The Value of Nothing

One of the things I love most about traveling abroad is the space that it creates for me to step outside of myself and look at my life. For me jetlag gives me a Zen-like mindset where I find that not much phases me for those first few days back. As a teacher who travels quite often for work, I find that my international travels disconnect me from my normal routine & emails, etc more than the domestic trips and therefore leave me looking deeper at my life and the world.

Just back from teaching in Sweden, I feel a strong pull to reconsider my energy expenditures. As someone who knew from the time I was 14yrs old what I wanted to do, I feel so incredibly grateful to be doing what I love that it’s easy for me to take on too much. Nevertheless my Chinese Medicine roots keep pulling me back to look at how to focus my energy (in a very non-esoteric way) in a way that allows me to do what I love and still take care of myself.

It took a visit to my naturopath today to bonk me over the head. She asked me about my schedule and I proceeded to list it all off and realized the tables had been turned. I knew it was a lot but to hear myself say it from her perspective hit home and I realized how much emphasis I was putting on all of these things that I am so passionate about and forgetting about myself. It’s tough to manage your schedule when you work for a corporation and have little control over it but it’s just as hard when you are passionate about what you do and work for yourself.

In our modern day lives it’s a common habit to cram our schedules full, finding our self-fulfillment & self esteem dependent on how busy we are and how many things we can check off our list in a day and I for one am as guilty as anyone. In a culture where our importance is placed on acquiring possessions, beauty, prestige and popularity, it’s easy to feel pulled in many directions on a constant basis. Even if these things aren’t so important to you we all feel the internal longing for security in our lives for ourselves and our family via money and love. In this constantly changing world I don’t believe there is a single person that is free from this.  

As the past couple years have taught us, we never truly know when the bottom will drop out from under us. Life is uncertain and one of the most wonderful things about it is that we never truly know what will happen next, unfortunately we often spend our lives pursuing the delusion of security.

There are very few things in life that we can really truly count on. So, in a constantly changing world how do we find stability in our lives without ever really knowing what is coming next? To this I say, we don’t, it’s like trying to lasso a horse that doesn’t exist.

I spent almost 15 years practicing Ashtanga diligently, slowly working my way through 1st, 2nd, 3rd , 4th series always pursuing a harder posture. Working toward postures that from another perspective may seem absurd or just plain ridiculous, but it captured my attention and inspired me to keep moving forward for many years. Then one day something clicked and finally made it through my thick skull. There are always harder postures, there is always more to learn, there is never an end. In the Ashtanga tradition I found that I had been subconsciously working to complete the Ashtanga series not really sure of why or how rather just because of my type-A tendencies. After all what did it matter if I could put my foot behind my head in a headstand? Once I left my mat did it matter if I did 4th series or 1st?  

One of the things I love most about my Vinyasa practice theses days is the sense that it is limitless, that no one person can ever comprehend it all and that I must surrender to the process. Nowadays one of my favorite themes in my classes is learning to use your strength to pursue your flexibility, of being able to be strong and still let go, of being able to stand right in the center of the fire and not wait for it to be over, to be completely immersed in the process no matter where you’re at.

In Chinese Medicine we use the idea of yin & yang to represent the duality of life. Yin is calm, quite, soft, dark, effortless, surrender & internal and the yang qualities are active, loud, hard, bright, effort, strong & expansive. From this perspective our health is in a constant state of flux and involves finding a balance of both yin & yang in our lives. Since everything of value in our society is dependent on our efforts, it’s usually the yin that gets left out. I see this often with my patients and find myself constantly reminding them of the importance of doing nothing.

Easier said than done, this is the hardest part of my job and my own life but in many ways it’s the most crucial. When left to our own devices our tendency is to do rather than just be, but from a Chinese Medicine perspective the time we spend doing nothing at all is more valuable than the time we spend doing and creating and planning. This down time is crucial for our health & longevity to learn to find ways to conserve and direct our energy rather than burning ourselves out. Especially in the times when we are the most busy so that we don’t wait until things slow down, because often times they never will.

The problem is, if we want to do anything in this world we have to try to push ahead of the thousands of people working harder than us, staying up later than us, getting more done than us. We can buy herbs and drugs and all sorts of pills to try to compensate but none of these can make up for the lack of nothingness in our lives. So, how do we pursue our dreams and still cultivate that valuable time we need to take care of ourselves in the process?

My purpose in this article is not to give you a list of things to do, even though lists sell and it might seem easier to follow in that format because I feel like that would be misleading. Cultivating nothingness isn’t a set of rules it’s a constant state of balance. It’s about changing the way we see things so that we start to put a value on the nothingness and begin to see our downtime as a gem, precious & valuable and seek ways to cultivate that in our lives.

I think you’ll also notice that when you change your mindset, your enjoyment of the nothingness will increase as well. You might even pursue things like yoga and (dare I say it) meditation as tools to cultivate this. Most of all the important part of this is to begin to see the value & importance in cultivating the nothingness -- it really is that simple!

image via Brian McDonell

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