I have something in common with MacKayla Lane. Thankfully, it’s not that I’m the vessel for unimaginable evil. It’s our soft underbelly, the place at which we are most vulnerable, a congenital character flaw that leads to serious weakness. It has to do with idle hands being the devil’s workshop. Specifically, as Mac says so eloquently, “Purposeless downtime has always been my Achilles Heel.”  Mine too. Like right now, in fact, as I struggle to find purpose, productivity and meaning in a few spare minutes between the myriad activities that punctuate my life. 

As I contemplated this continual thorn in my side, I tried to unpack Mac’s insight. What, exactly, is “purposeless downtime?”  Does such time include minutes and hours that are unscheduled, where we have no responsibilities to dictate our actions? Such moments are rare and precious, or should be, but, historically, they have always filled me with dread. Why?  Before we explore the deep unease I share with MacKayla, let’s think about the phrase “purposeless downtime.”  I suspect such a juxtaposition is actually an oxymoron along the lines of yoga competition. 

So, does downtime have a purpose beyond rest and surcease from doing?  I love it when my yoga teacher says, “Let go of all doing,” at the end of class as we prepare for Savasana. But there’s a reason they call Corpse Pose the hardest pose of yoga. It’s hard to let go of all doing and just be. At least it is for me. Always has been. Because we judge ourselves and others by the doing, not the being.

I’m not sure about the rest of the world, but here in the good ol’ USA, we’re taught to achieve. To get the A’s, make the team, hit the home run, win that yoga contest and all competitions, for that matter. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ll rest when I’m dead”?   But in wanting to know how we can repurpose our purposeless downtime and make it purposeful. we are missing the point.  As does Mac Lane. 

The purpose of purposeless downtime is to be purposeless. To recharge, refresh, relax and rejuvenate. To fill our gas tanks so that we can get to our next destination. The purpose of purposeless downtime is to be a human being instead of a human doing. That proposition scares the pants off many people. MacKayla and I used to be among them. I’m not anymore. I’ve learned to embrace unscheduled time and to make friends with my interior self.

Why is purposeless downtime such an Achilles Heel? Well, part of it is the guilt of feeling purposeless and unproductive. But the real kicker for me, and also for Mac, is what we choose to do with that time. Most of us have no idea how to relax in a meaningful way—we watch TV and play video games, both of which are highly stimulating. We sit for too long in positions that stress our bodies. None of this is truly relaxing for our physical, mental or emotional selves, we just think it is. Moreover, in the name of R&R, we engage in excess drinking, binge eating, comatose-like activities where we make like vegetables for days on end, or hit the town and stay up for days on end, pub crawling or dancing till we drop. Again, this is not relaxation. Or downtime. 

When faced with purposeless downtime we often get into trouble—deciding to paint our living rooms, only to get distracted when we’ve only finished one wall, or to plant an herb garden, only to make a big pile of dirt that serves as an eyesore in the front of the house. Or maybe we decide to butt into someone else’s business, or take an unwelcome interest in our children’s lives.  Perhaps we decide to clean out our closets, and we end up just making a mess. But any way we slice it, we tend to ruin our downtime with ill-thought-out activities because we cannot tolerate inactivity. It’s hard to be a human being.

Downtime should be just that. A time to be still, turn inward, focus our gaze softly on the horizon, or into the fire. We can pet the soft fur of our dog, or experience the delicious warmth of a fleece blanket surrounding us on a cold day in early spring. We can listen to the wind, or take a leisurely stroll outside and breath in the scents of the new flowers about to bloom. We can think about all the beautiful aspects of our own lives, and send positive thoughts to those who we know are struggling. We can enjoy a warm bath, or let our kids grow heavy as we count our blessings. We can read a book and engage our imagination, or listen to music that soothes our souls. Downtime is just that, a time to wind down, not up. A time to experience the yin in lives filled with an over abundance of yang. 

We can all benefit from purposeless downtime. And we need not be afraid of it. An empty gas tank isn’t going to get us anywhere. Unscheduled, unstructured time is also where our wellspring of creativity is located. When we let go of the conscious mind, we are able to access the infinite and to be inspired.  There’s a reason the major western religions advocate a day of rest, and why gospels enumerate all the activities that should cease on the Sabbath. Being with ourselves is not an occasion for discomfort; it’s an experience of peace and tranquility. In a famous quote from the Bible, God exhorts us to, “Be still and know that I am God.”  It’s in the stillness that we come to know ourselves, too. 

Given that she is possessed by a sentient book containing the most powerful magic in the universe, I understand why Mac might not want to go deep. But that doesn’t hold for the rest of us.  So go ahead. Find some purposeless downtime and be still. Relax. Find purpose in being purposeless. It’s worked for me, I’ve turned my swords into plowshares and my Achilles Heel into my greatest strength.  

 

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