Niksen: The Practice of Doing Nothing

Recently I came across a NY Times article about the Dutch concept of niksen, which literally means “doing nothing.”  Then I found this article on Big Think on the same subject. As a long-time practitioner and teacher of Buddhism and Zen meditation, this piqued my interest, since “doing nothing” sounds, superficially at least, like meditation.  When I was younger I lived and practiced for 12 years in a Zen monastery and then in a residential Buddhist retreat center, where I spent several hours every day sitting on a meditation cushion, literally “doing nothing,”   so I suppose I am well-versed in doing nothing. That said, the Zen meditation I practiced, sitting on a cushion in a silent meditation hall, was an exercise in focused attention and concentration, so it was not exactly “doing nothing.” But it wasn’t surfing the web.

In the articles I read about niksen it didn’t have much of a spiritual or meditative emphasis; it was more like sitting on a park bench and watching the world go by (and not looking at your smartphone).  The point was to ease stress and anxiety, set aside devices, IPads, and other addictive distractions, to develop more spontaneity and creativity, and in general improve your quality of life.

That’s fine.  It doesn’t matter what you call it—spiritual practice or quality of life—it is something that, increasingly in our post-modern world, we are losing the ability to do.  In pre-industrial times, people naturally “did nothing” all the time in their daily lives–in the sense of walking out to where the cows grazed, watching a sunset, waiting for fish to bite, or sitting in lamplit semi-darkness watching the shadows on the wall in the hour before bed.  In those days the concept of “entertainment” as we understand it didn’t yet exist.  There was no radio or TV, no internet or email, no boom boxes or earbuds, no rock concerts in stadiums—all of this hyper stimulation that has come crashing into our lives like a tsunami.  Unless you live totally off the grid or decide to take a hike in a wilderness area, you can’t avoid this.  This is our life now, and it is hard to comprehend—unless you go to some remote tribal area of the Amazon jungle or rural Africa—how utterly different it is from the way human beings have always lived.

The New York Times article about niksen shows a photograph of someone leaning over a bridge railing watching a river stream by.  I don’t know why the Dutch in particular created this niksen concept—although they are otherwise known as an industrious, busy society–but it’s admirable that they did.  They seem to have learned to cultivate niksen before the advent of  YouTube videos about stress-reduction, influencers with their aromatherapy, meditation apps complete with timed bells, as well as endless well-meaning articles by psychology-oriented advice columnists helping us learn how to de-stress.  There have been some efforts to teach tech-addicted teenagers how to turn off their phone for a day or week; some experts advise adults to delete Google from their smartphones, mindfulness gurus urge us to take a walk in nature, and so on.  In a sense all this well-meaning niksen-like instruction has become a kind of second-order distraction on its own, infotainment to cancel out all the other infotainment to which we have become so reliant and addicted.

We need something like niksen because we have created a nightmare of intrusive stimuli, one which may be so invasive that it is negatively affecting childrens’ and teenagers’ neurological development.  The metaverse and its virtual reality goggles are next; in fact they are here; the latest VR goggles sell for over $2,000. Will there come a time when a new generation of adults emerge from childhood walking around all day with goggles on, who are neurologically, and even genetically, completely unable to give it up and tune out? We must not forget that the VR headsets even more insidious products are created by companies whose overriding goal is to make profit.  To the extent all this stimulative activity is addictive, it is, in my view, not too far removed from the trade in addictive drugs—cocaine, heroin, morphine and the like—which floods our streets while creating enormous profits for shadowy drug lords in other countries who cook this stuff up.

In that sense, niksen is detox, akin to drug or alcohol detox.  It is good that we have the opportunity to do niksen, to detox, disconnect and unplug—a new twist on Tim Leary’s LSD counterculture slogan, “Tune in, turn on, and drop out.” The real challenge, one that doesn’t get enough attention in my view, is to go beyond detox and work to create a sane and humane world where authentic human warmth and connection—the old fashioned kind—returns to the center of our experience, and we don’t need all this stimulative static to compensate for the lack of it.  We don’t really need any of this infotainment to be happy, we don’t even need niksen.  What we really need, to paraphrase the immortal song, is love, sweet love, the kind of face-to-face community intimacy that has sustained us for a million years. 

I don’t know how we get that back.


4 thoughts on “Niksen: The Practice of Doing Nothing

  1. I sat for many years. Now I try to do something more like this. Just sit in a chair and not do anything for a while. It’s a challenge, cause I’ve become completely addicted to my phone.

  2. We have been learning about this in a challenging way. Both my wife and I have been very physically, mentally, and creatively active with our personal and work lives. In March she slipped on a wet sidewalk, broke her hip which required surgery. During the surgery she suffered a stroke. The physical part of recovery has proceeded rapidly. She worked hard with physical rehabilitation and can now walk up and down stairs in our home and has gotten back to her walks on her treadmill and around town. As a result of the stroke, she has had trouble with the devises of modern life–her cell phone, computer, even navigating the T.V. with its multiple buttons and endless channels has been difficult. As a result we are both forced to slow down–be more and do less, feel more and think less. Smile and cry more and talk less. Sometimes life creates new opportunities in challenging ways. Carlin turned 85 in July. I will be 80 in December. Life’s a trip of deepening love, acceptance, and learning to embrace the age and stage of life we are in and find new ways to relate to our inner and outer world.

  3. Thank you so much for your thoughts on Lewis’ post. Your comment, “Life’s a trip of deepening love, acceptance, and learning to embrace the age and stage of life we are in and find new ways to relate to our inner and outer world,” is meaningful to me as I just retired and am adjusting to having more time and less commitments, doing less.
    I am going to write this quote in my journal and will be reflecting on it often!
    I also want to thank Lewis for his book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice, it was a great help to me when I had long Covid last year!

  4. How would you fit boredom in all of this? Isn’t boredom also some kind of ‘not doing’? Boredom in my own view is very corrosive to the sense of self. Sitting still and being bore, truly profoundly and desperately bore, can be a very ‘useful’ part of Spiritual practice.

    I do think that the last 10-15 years has been like an Atomic bomb on Spiritual life, this ‘nightmare of intrusive stimuli’ I think points to it.

    And yes, I do tend to think that it is highly addictive. What happens when ‘it’ is removed? We feel at lost, scattered, looking to get “busy’ once more. To be able to fix our attention on something outside ourselves, for ‘within’ it has become a ‘void’/phantom like. The very last Zen retreat I participated in, I saw a lot of participants running for their phones during break periods, to me, that was the end of it, something was broken, the very spirit of Sesshin.

    I have been saying for more than 15 years that some shift in emphasis has happened within ‘our’ psyche, we went from an emphasis on a ‘relative’ stable ‘whole’ center by which to look from (within) to an emphasis on ephemeral, discontinuous points of focus to look at (without) which are outside of ourselves.

    Where is our ‘attention’ on these days? Ephemeral (coming and going) discontinuous (without continuity in terms of content) and points of focus which we look at. Points of focus are specificities, particularities. It is also concentration, but on ephemeral and discontinuous ‘things’ outside of ourselves.

    And then we have contemplation, which is also a shift, this shift does not go towards specificities, points of focus, It is more ‘whole’, more undifferentiated. You ‘feel’ the whole world of ‘things’ falling apart, some would say, that the world of things dissolves within your very own awareness and that can be very scary. The problem with this, is that we kind of take it for granted that the world is made of differentiated things in relation with other differentiated things. But in contemplation, a different mode of awareness comes in, it is whole, undifferentiated, it does not try to reach, grasp ‘things’ (laser beam awareness). It does not discriminate between this and that, I call this ‘sunshine awareness’, for just like the sun, it shines on all without any kind of discrimination. To me, that is ‘doing-not doing’.

    Both are active in us and as us, it is a question of emphasis.
    Whole comes first, things second.

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