Why Idleness Isn’t Laziness, But Life Itself


Society tends to dismiss idleness as laziness, a habit of dreamers-who-never-do; the artists and writers who think their life away.

Far from this, idleness has many practical benefits.

But that is not the primary focus of this article.

Rather, I would like to show that true life lies not in doing, but dreaming; idleness. Far from a waste of time, it is the essence of life itself, and the most intense experience we may have.

The importance of idleness

Idleness allows us to recharge. We remove ourselves from our daily tedium, and wander aimlessly about. This is a true escape.

In idleness we ruminate. It is often our most creative time. In fact, we may build our workflow around idleness, using it to solve problems more effectively.

Idleness allows us to realize new possibilities. We dream, discovering whole new worlds, whole new possibilities, which we would not have considered in a more practical bent of mind.

The life which is unexamined is not worth living


Only in idleness may we reflect. It allows us to examine ourselves, and thereby order our mind better, and be more prepared for the future.

By doing nothing, we hone our concentration, and improve our attention span, by escaping the constant stream of stimulus society throws at us.  

Even within the framework of a capitalist life idleness holds much benefit.

But done right, it is far more than this.

Idleness is the pillar of a meaningful life, not just another activity.

What is idleness?

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

Franz Kafka

Idleness is a complete immersion in the world, so deep that self-awareness fades in it’s wake. In idleness, we escape our ‘selves’. 

Sometimes, as I drift idly on Walden pond, I cease to live and begin to be

Henry David Thoreau

It is simply being, not living, or doing, or thinking, but truly experiencing the world.

Let us consider James Wright’s poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”:

Over my head I see the bronze butterfly

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.

Down the ravine, behind the empty house,

The cowbells follow one another

Into the distances of the afternoon.

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,

The droppings of last year’s horses

Blaze up like golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

In The Art of the Wasted Day, Patricia Hampl recognizes the last line not as a lamentation, but as an utterance of joy: ‘Finally! I have wasted my life.’

As this poem beautifully illustrates, idleness is the savouring of small pleasures; of warm sun on your skin, the hammock swaying in a gentle breeze. It is observing the world, and noticing details that usually escape us.

Idleness is spiritual, intense, and characterized by solitude; being alone with the whole world, rather than alone with yourself (which is loneliness).  

Idleness arises when we are completely at ease, in harmony with our surroundings. Hampl describes it as a kind of “floating” through life, drifting on a buoyant cloud of dreams.

It is, as I have before stated, not a specific activity we can pin down, but a way of life, an attitude to the world, a state of mind; one that may only begin when we let go:

Our Obsession With Time

My art and profession is to live

Michel de Montaigne

Capitalism, modern society, is built on the foundation of time.

Time well spent, according to our dogma, has a clear result.  

But in reality, the reverse is true.

Life is to valuable to be spent doing.

The true business of life, quite surprisingly, is living, enjoying the pleasures of our existence.

Instead of enjoying what we have, we are always told to seek more, to replace our simple pleasures with grander and more expensive things.

But this never stops.

The problem with productivity is that it works, leaving us with more and more meaningless things to do, ever grander things to pursue.

The problem with productivity is that it works, leaving us with more and more meaningless things to do Click To Tweet

We become trapped in the cycle of capitalism, never stopping to really enjoy what we have.

Idleness is a deliberate defiance of this pattern.

Because time is like a handful of sand. The harder we grip, attempting to defy it’s flow, the faster it escapes us.

Rather, we must enjoy the passing of the sand; savour the warmth of the coruscating grains slipping through our fingers.

Truly doing nothing, (which includes not checking your phone), is something we have lost; that society views as strange, perverse even.

But, as I will now proceed to argue, doing nothing (and embracing the lifestyle that comes with it) is true life.

“I have done nothing today” – What? Have you not lived?

Michel de Montaigne

Idleness as a way of life

Idleness is life itself

We tend to think of idleness as an escape from reality; running away from the obligations of a real life.

But how can this be? True idleness is the most intense experience we can have; the purest life.

I am enamoured with this passage of Virginia Woolf:

If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills—then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.

I love first how it captures the rhythm of the world, it’s stop start motion, and the harmony of it all; the rhythm we may only find when we have lost ourselves, the rhythm Taoism is all about. 

But that’s not the main point:

Now I’m pretty sure Woolf had experienced quite a few things in her time. Idleness being described as the “purest ecstasy” is then quite remarkable.

It possesses a striking intensity; that no words can really capture.

Idleness is life itself, because it is the most poignant experience life has to offer us. It is coming to terms with the world, really experiencing things for the first time, rather than glossing over them as we usually do.

Idleness is reality undistorted, undiluted by action of thought; the self.

We think of it as a dream state, when in fact the opposite is true. The hustle and bustle of normal life is the dream state, where we never really experience anything, never take the time to stop, and just be.

The Core of Religion

Earlier I described idleness as an escape from the self, looking outwards into the world, rather than inwards.

It is only when we give up our self-awareness that we can have the deepest spiritual experiences.

Only when our minds are empty can the “world rush in”.

Only then do we become aware of another presence in our midst, what we Christians call God.

Think of worship, or deep prayer, or any deeply spiritual experience you’ve had.

It always happens in the state of idleness; where we have forgotten our ‘selves’, and allowed God to work in us, through us.

Such spiritual experiences simply can’t happen when we’re thinking of ourselves, obsessing over something we said or did. They happen when we let go.

Idleness is the path to spirituality, and consequently lies at the core of most religions and philosophical systems; as meditation, prayer, worship, chanting and reading. a

the root of culture

Consider Ancient Greece, the cradle of philosophy. Wealthy individuals spent their days in idleness; chatting in the agora (a public meeting square), savouring wine and eating grapes.

Today we would consider their time ‘wasted’. But in those moments of idle chatter, philosophy was conceived, and Western culture crafted.

In fact, the Ancient Greeks saw busyness as a characteristic of slaves. Idleness, in their minds, was the quality of a great and noble man; who spent his days living, rather than doing. History provides much precedent for this:

Consider Rene Descartes, who did his work in bed. Or Gregor Mendel, the monk who ‘discovered’ genetics. Immanuel Kant, who built his work around long walks, and forever changed philosophy. Siddharta (Buddha) who supposedly spend days in meditation, clearing his mind, doing absolutely nothing.

All revolutionary figures, all paragons of idleness.

Or perhaps we might consider the lifestyle of the lords and ladies of yore: champagne on the lawn, wine in the library, long walks, badminton on the grass. A life of idleness, yet the pinnacle of culture.

Even hubs of modern culture are built around idleness; wine-tasting, watching movies, reading books, enjoying food. All idle activities, through which culture arises and is preserved.  

Idleness is the root of culture, a universal pillar of life.

The Pillar of Writing

A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world - Susan Sontag Click To Tweet

Idleness is observing to the world, noticing the details we usually gloss over.

This is the essence of writing. Writing is simply attention; the details you notice, and which you choose to include.

If you want to be a writer, write a little bit every day. Pay attention to the world around you. Stories are hiding, waiting everywhere. You just have to open your eyes and your heart.

Kate Dicamillo

Is this really for me?

Okay, so I might have convinced you that idleness is essential for spiritual and creative types, the pastors and writers of the world.

But you might still be asking: is this really for me?

My answer to this question, irrespective of who you are, is yes.

Now I’m not saying you should cease to do anything.

But do remember this: life isn’t about doing, but living. Embrace idleness. Waste your time. Enjoy life’s pleasures.  

Idleness is an art, that can be refined. Like a wine-taster who learns to appreciate the subtle flavours and fragrances of the liquor, so too must we learn to get the most out of life’s experiences, to find the eternity in each moment.

The wasted day is never wasted.

To waste a life is to find true life.

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Brian Scoles
1 year ago

A healthy amount of idleness is truly good for the soul. It was built into the fabric of creation on the seventh day. As someone who has been a workaholic at times, I need to keep in mind how important “down-time” is. Thank you for this reminder.