“Those who are ‘out of breath for no purpose, always busy about nothing’ do not have leisure but idle occupation.” — Seneca
It wasn’t easy to find a quote about the importance of working less. It seems that in each corner of the internet, I am being told to work my butt off if I want to make my life meaningful at all.
As far as I understand, the Stoics, at least, saw the value of preserving significant chunks of empty space in life in order to open yourself to insight and wisdom. And indeed — decluttering your awareness and making parts of your days work-free can do wonders.
I found that real living usually happens when I have no agenda. When I pause writing to stare at the garden and observe a squirrel cheekily trying to steal eggs from the wagtails’ nest. When I go to meet somebody with an openness to anything that may arise from our interaction — rather than trying to “get” something out of it.
Life happens when I stay attentive and participate — but give up the idea of control.
And you know what? I need life to happen to me. Beyond chasing my goals, perfecting myself and meeting the plan, there is something more important, I feel. The place from which spontaneous insight and simple joy arise, married to one another.
The empty space of my life. I am responsible for preserving it.
It is akin to the use of white space in graphic design. Skilfully applying it to a particular design makes it more intelligible and easier to perceive. Additionally, it helps to direct user’s attention to the focal points of the content — as well as simply allow them to breathe in between chunks of information and other stimuli.
The same kind of “white space” is needed in your daily life. If your days are filled with tasks and commitments, between which you hardly allow yourself any transition — it becomes virtually impossible to make sense of it all. Your actions blur into one never-ending stream of busyness — and eventually, you end up confused about why you are doing what you are doing.
Burnout is just one step away from that state.
“It is about the commas and full stops. On their own, they are not at all sexy. Yet, it is the commas and full stops, the pause and the breath, that transforms something unintelligible and exhausting, into something enjoyable and meaningful .” — Caroline Purkhardt
Breaks, commas and full stops are necessary to see the bigger picture. If I removed my punctuation marks from this post, you may not even understand what I am talking about.
This is the power of pausing — it allows you to make sense of what happens in between the breaths.
On top of its practical utility, preserving empty space in your life gives you a chance to simply be – as opposed to always do. I feel this is especially important in the times when we are losing our capacity to live just for the sake of living. Most of the time, we perceive ourselves as existing in order to fulfil some sort of a goal.
Look! Your days are filled with all different kinds of pursuits. And some of those pursuits may even be very noble and necessary ones. But this doesn’t change the fact that the actions you are performing in the name of your goals are, more often than not, means to an end.
Raising your children so that they become good people. Writing daily blog posts, so that you can establish yourself as a prominent writer. (Yeah, I’m “guilty” of that one.) Meditating so that you can become enlightened. Working your ass off to secure your family a decent living. Maybe even going on a walk to hit your daily 10,000 steps count.
All of these are important things to do. But, as long as there is an end goal for which you do them, they usually take away from — rather than create — the empty space I am talking about.
As a result, they don’t encourage you to live in the moment. And I argue that living in the moment is, in the end, the most valuable way in which we can spend our time on this planet.
In the times when the default lifestyle is one of business and distraction, the ability to stay connected to the present will be ever-more valued. This is where the most purposeful work is sourced anyway. This is where our relationships with ourselves and others hit the jackpot and allow us to attune to each other.
I discovered that — quite paradoxically — in order to achieve best possible outcomes in any of my pursuits, I have to give up the idea of any specific outcomes. I simply need to focus on two things.
Preserving time for distraction-free, focused work on the matter at hand. And then, preserving equally long stretches of “empty space,” where my priority is to do nothing but live in the moment.
I may still be intentional about what happens in that empty space, of course. But at the same time, there can be no pushing. This is the sacred space of my life, when I prioritize loosening up my resistance to things and allowing whatever comes to unfold. Setting goals and following plans are absolutely secondary when I enter my empty space.
I encourage you to do the same: dedicate time daily to living as your primary occupation. You may soon discover that this was the missing element which puts the various pieces of your life together, to make up an integrated, well-functioning whole.