And being? In general, we don’t spend much time being. Being occurs when we're relatively inactive and relaxing. It’s when our minds aren’t chattering away with thoughts, and when we aren’t concentrating our attention on tasks or activities. In this mode, we usually pay a lot of our attention to our surroundings, and to our own experience. We’re in this mode when we go for a leisurely walk, do sports such as swimming or running, meditate, do yoga or listen to music.
Of these three modes, our culture prizes the first two far above the third. Doing and thinking are seen as the engines of achievement. Thinking logically enables us to solve problems and come up with ideas. If we have a problem, we sit down and think it through. And doing – working and being busy – enables us to achieve our goals, to be productive, to make money and become successful.
But being is unproductive. It equates with laziness, and wasted time. Why waste our precious hours doing nothing when we could be filling them with activity and achievement? Our politicians and business leaders would agree with this too. They need us to work long hours to keep the economy growing. For them, doing nothing means less production, a less competitive workforce and a lower GNP.
The Benefits of Being
This is why many - perhaps most - of the greatest discoveries, inventions and creative ideas in human history have not come about through ‘hard work’ or sustained logical thinking, but by doing nothing. That is, they have mostly occurred by accident, or unconscious intuition, in states of relaxation.
The physicist Newton described how the ‘notion of gravitation came into his mind’ when he sat ‘in contemplative mood’ and saw an apple fall from a tree. (The apple didn’t actually fall on him, as is popularly believed.)
The concept of coordinate geometry suddenly occurred to Rene Descartes when he was half asleep in bed, watching a fly buzz around the room.
James Watt solved the problem of loss of heat in steam engines while walking in a park, an idea which led to the industrial revolution. (‘I had not walked further than the golf house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind,’ Watt wrote.) And as one final example, the physicist Nils Bohr effectively won the Noble Prize while unconscious. Drifting off to sleep, he dreamt he saw the nucleus of the atom, with the electrons spinning around it, just like our solar system with the sun and planets – and in this way he ‘discovered’ the structure of the atom.
It’s true that these ideas usually don’t occur completely out of nowhere – in many cases, the scientists had been grappling hard with the issues before the final ‘aha’ moment occurred. But certainly the scientists needed to allow themselves to relax and their minds to become empty and quiet in order for these solutions to arise.
A high proportion of the world’s great works of art were also inspired and conceived during moments of relaxed inactivity. The most recorded song of all time, "Yesterday" by The Beatles, was ‘heard’ by Paul McCartney as he was waking up one morning. The melody was fully formed in his mind, and he went straight to the piano in his bedroom to find the chords to go with it, and later found words to fit the melody. Mozart described how his musical ideas ‘flow best and most abundantly.’ when he was alone ‘traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep… Whence and how they come, I know not, nor can I force them.’ Similarly, Tchaikovsky described how the idea for a composition usually came ‘suddenly and unexpectedly… It takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches and leaves, and finally blossoms.’ Similarly, many writers and poets have spoken of a ‘muse’ or ‘daemon’ which is the source of the creativity, which is beyond their conscious control, and provides them with inspiration.
A New Attitude to Inactivity
Therefore progress of any kind – personal, spiritual, or creative development, collective economic or political development – does not lie in more activity, more hard work or longer working hours. If anywhere, it lies in more relaxation, more leisure time, more empty time to do nothing in.
As long as we ensure that we fill this free time with being rather than doing, we might find that it transforms us from tired automatons into happier, more creative and innovative beings, with a greater contribution to make to the world.