The Importance of Nothing

By Michael Boulos

A student is much like a monk. We have a rigid schedule of classes. We move between solitary study and communal activities like eating, chanting prayers, or partying. We also suffer many of the same afflictions as a monk. Our studies become stale, our labors burdensome, we feel anxious for change. Monks had a word for the weariness that often arises from our shared manner of life: acedia. In his guidebook for monasteries, the theologian John Cassian described acedia as that which “makes the man lazy and sluggish about all manner of work which has to be done within the enclosure of his dormitory. It does not suffer him to stay in his cell, or to take any pains about reading, and he often groans because he can do no good while he stays there, and complains and sighs.” His description sounds too familiar. It is that same feeling that never arises at the beginning or end of our work, but seems to rule the middle. It is not the fear of the blank page at the start of an essay, but the dread of continuing once it is halfway complete.

Acedia’s cure is elusive. Instagram gurus and life coaches have proposed many solutions for a tired spirit: mindfulness meditation, prayer, reading, exercise, fishing—you have heard them before. There are less-respected, more tempting options: YouTube, TV, mindless scrolling through apps. These are an unconscious, guilty staple for many (I have to plead my own guilt). But all the methods hardly seem to do the trick, especially during a busy season. Any diversion can clear your head after a few hours or days, but refreshment is most often necessary between assignments and between midterms, whenever there isn’t enough time, whenever a proper change of pace is impossible but the need feels greatest.

The resulting trouble is that our heads get too full. After enough consecutive assignments or classes, you develop mental congestion. The problem with the solutions so often proposed is that they only add to the blockage. You’ve done a great deal of work. Now do just one more thing. Even something as pared-down as meditation feels like another chore.

I would like to propose a different solution: do nothing. Nothing at all. You might want to find someplace comfortable to do it. You might head outside. But don’t try to smell the roses or admire the hills. Don’t try to sit in some unnatural way or breathe with thoughtful rhythm. Because those would all be something. It pains me to say such things. I’m also a UCLA student. I got here by doing many somethings; no nothings were on my application. I want my breaks to be productive. I always want to learn something, make something, or do something. However, the path that appears most productive is often the least. The overstuffed mind does not produce work of the same caliber, or at the same speed as the unburdened one. Trying to smuggle productivity into every waking moment will only leave you staring at screens or open textbooks longer.

The reader might object: How can you do nothing? You can’t stop thinking! I concede the reader’s point. Doing nothing consists of unguided thought. It is in that respect distinct from meditation. The thoughts come at you instead of you looking for them. And as the blockage clears, you may catch some things worth keeping. The natural effect is that your mind moves to consider the pressing matters. You may find that the mangled, difficult things to resolve end up unwinding themselves better than if you were to pull and tug.

I should clarify that to do nothing is an emergency measure. There are many kinds of exhaustion. We have examined a deep kind which, for example, attacks toward the end of a difficult midterm season. Some quarters pass where it is not felt; others, it extends well outside midterms. Doing nothing is not for the well-rested. During an uneventful Week One, it would only amount to wasted time. It is also a potent remedy. A dose of 10, or in extreme cases, 20 minutes at a time, is quite effective. I will also add that I have discussed interchangeably acedia, a feeling of restlessness which may arise at any time, and mental congestion, which is the product of continuous intellectual work. They are distinct, but are both expressed as inability to get work done, and are equally well-resolved by doing nothing.

To do nothing might be a more popular solution if it were not so difficult. To really put aside everything, even for a short time, is painful. It takes an effort different from the kind that the other remedies require. The challenge of removing is different from the challenge of adding. It is unfamiliar. I hope that the reader will be willing to try something new. If the usual solutions are ineffective, you will not have much to lose. I hope that you will secure as much refreshment as I have by using the right remedy for the right symptoms.

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