A Life-Changing Period Of Doing Nothing

Updated: Aug 31 2002, 05:30am hrs
In the summer of 2002, I decided I no longer wanted to live the kind of life I had been leading locked up in an airless office, whipped by deadlines. Trapped into meetings that went on so long, that by the time you were done, theyd changed the season outside. It wasnt just work, of course. The overloaded feeling a constant drum of would, could, should spilled into everything. Into distracted conversations with friends, and into family life too: Its Wednesday night, would my daughter hurry up and tell me about her day at school, so that I can go and watch The Practice

For months, I had been looking up strange foreign words in dictionaries: freedom, loafing, summer holiday...ah, summer holiday. I wanted a luxury even money cant buy: Time. So one inspired day, I walked out of a fabulous salary and into nothingness. No office. No clout. No identity at all. But time. Wonderful, luscious time. I did not, of course, want to opt out of a work life forever. That possibility isnt available to most of us. I merely wanted a time-out or what psychologist David Kundtz calls a "grinding halt" a life-changing period of doing nothing.

Being no celebrity, why should my story interest you Perhaps because as Jung said: "That which is most personal is most common." Hurrysickness is an epidemic of our times, with many of us suffering from acute feelings of time poverty. We take on more work, we say yes to more commitments, we do with less sleep. When we are doing something, we feel we should be doing something else. When we relax, we feel guilty. In a skewed way, we even feel proud -- as if work stress were a badge of middle class honour. But deep within, the drumbeat continues: something is missing.

Siddharth, a successful executive friend and a vice-president in a large company, seems to have the most enviable life with all expenses-paid business travel that takes him to the most beautiful spots on the planet. But, he tells me sadly: "The only thing I ever get to see is the airport, the hotel and the road in-between." Bit by bit, we keep allowing more stress into our lives and we dont realise it. Then one day, we have a heart attack and we die. Or we live with regrets for all the things we didnt do. When we had time and enthusiasm and our kids still loved us.

A lab experiment best illustrates why most people dont realise when theyve crossed the danger mark. If you take a frog and drop it into a pan of boiling hot water, hell jump out immediately. However, if you place him in a pan of cold water and turn the heat up slowly, all the way to boiling point, the frog doesnt jump out at all. Because the heat is turned up gradually, the frog adjusts little by little and the water keeps turning deadly. That is how it is with stress. The Japanese even have a word for it. Karoshi: dead due to overwork. Clearly, people want to steal back their time from wherever theyve given it away.

A recent Businessweek cover story lists "rethinking the rat race" as one of 25 ideas major trends that are changing the world today. Many more people are balancing the old refrain of "give me a job" with a new one of "give me a life". A study by Yankelovich Partners Inc says Americans today, at a margin of two to one, would take two weeks of extra vacation time over two weeks of extra pay. Even the notoriously overworked Japanese have cut back work by more than 191 hours.

But while freedom fantasies are all very well, actually being free can be very scary, at least at first. Busywork and the pressure of full-choked days helps you avoid the painful feelings of coming face to face with yourself. Like the businessman who said: "There are two reasons why I never take a vacation. First, Im afraid the office wont be able to function without me. And second, Im afraid it will." Its true. You are dispensable, but if you allow yourself to stay with that initial uncomfortable feeling, it passes. You realise that you survived being dispensed with. And you may have even found yourself a life. As writer Erica Jong put it so well: "If you dont risk anything, you risk even more."

The truth is that if you dont control your time, your life will continue to speed away from you. A simple way to change your relationship to time lies in the concept of entrainment, as suggested by Stephan Rechtschaffen, author of Timeshifting. This isnt about managing time as much as about becoming aware of it... Start by noticing the different rhythms around you: cities like Mumbai, New York, Hong Kong have a rhythm quite different to the slower rhythms of say, Chandigarh or Dehra Dun. We have unconsciously entrained (synchronised) with a faster rhythm and it controls the way we walk and talk and the way we cant relax. But once we become aware of different rhythms traffic rhythms, the rhythm at a music concert, the quieter rhythm of nature at dusk we can consciously entrain with something slower several times a day, thereby shifting our own rhythms. Even a few moments of doing this helps balance the frantic pace of our lives.

One of my own favourite concepts lies in the Japanese word yohaku. It means margins, white space. When you edit down a jammed life, you create margins. That is where new possibilities emerge. To go back to where I started, I got my summer holiday a month loafing in a beautiful remote village of Austria. And then, another month on a university campus, being a student all over again. Now even when I go back to the work grind, I will always have my magical summer.

That, and a reclaimed ability to savour pleasure wherever it crosses my path. Even as I write this late at night, sitting on a fat comfortable armchair, a lazy shaft of moonlight sneaks in from the window behind me and falls on a delicious new novel I bought this afternoon. Lying in wait for me. Guiltlessly.

(Simran Bhargava has been a writer and editor for several years. She recently quit a high pressure job to simply go with the whim. She will write a weekly column on the business of life. She can be contacted at simranbhargava@yahoo.com)