The art of nothingness

Learn to turn off the world, or it will take you down

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

There is an art to doing nothing. In this workaday world dominated by how many items we can cram into our daily lives, some might confuse the art of nothingness with laziness. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Philosophers from Jean-Paul Sartre to Martin Heidegger have grappled with the concept of nothingness to form their own disparate philosophies. My version of nothingness is quite simple: It involves beer, Mexico, some books to read and a laptop.

A few months ago, Cadie and I searched for cheap airfare for a quick trip we could take in December. We were both feeling the monotony build up and craved a quiet place in which to escape and fill our time with all the nothing we desired.

We settled on a small fishing village south of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, booked our tickets and an Airbnb rental and disappeared for nine days.

Leading up to our trip, our rental host pitched several adventures and excursions in which we could partake; fishing for durados, whale watching, botanical gardens to visit and many others. Cadie and I generally aren’t the “tour” kind of people, so we left everything up in the air until our arrival.

Once we landed and met our driver Rafael, he scooped us up and promptly stopped at a tienda so we could pick up beers to drink on the 45-minute drive south to our village. Along the way, Rafael told us of all the wonderful things we could do in Mexico, but we demurred and said we’d let him know if we wanted to book anything.

Really, we both just wanted a place where we could sit in the sun, drink beer and tequila all day and practice the hobbies and passions we are unable to find time to do while living our lives in the work world back home.

Cadie refined her drawing skills, picking out random scenes to practice perspective. I opened a novel I’d started writing years ago and began right where I left off, happy to again be writing something creative of my own instead of journalism for the Reader.

Here’s how an average day went: We’d wake somewhat late (it was two hours ahead of our usual time zone) and eat some fruit. Then we’d wander down to one of the half dozen places to eat and have breakfast. Cadie would often walk over to a sand bar under a tree we called “The Greatest Tree” and work on her drawing or spend the afternoon reading or applying henna tattoos to the local children who always flocked to her. I would return to the room and write on the balcony until the sun got too hot, then I’d move inside and continue.

We’d break again for lunch, then maybe take a hike around the bay to a couple of hidden beaches to swim in the cool ocean. At some point, we would begin drinking for the day. To avoid hangovers, we instituted a rotation that started with a glass of water, then a shot of chilled tequila mixed with fresh lime juice, then a cold beer, then repeat. Our system worked well, as we only really suffered a hangover the second to last night when we met a local hairdresser and stayed up howling at the moon with him a bit later than usual. 

We both read voraciously; Cadie an obscure Hemingway novel, me a trashy legal thriller from the plane ride and a book by Paul Auster with a little more substance.

We slept with the balcony doors open and never turned on the TV or air conditioner once.

Occasionally Rafael would appear and ask if we wanted to drive to a nearby town or book a whale watching tour, but we would just shift the box of fresh Pacificos in our arms, shake our heads and walk back up the hill to the room with dumb smiles. He must’ve been so confused.

The only stress of the trip, in fact, was the very last day when Rafael was late driving us back to the airport and we had to sprint through the terminal like it was Home Alone to make our flight after a COVID test needed to be administered a second time. We made the flight with just minutes to spare.

We returned home and were pleased to see winter had finally arrived. Both of our creative wells had been filled and we were ready to take on the workaday world once again, comforted by the fact that we both spent nine days practicing the art of nothingness and succeeded.

You don’t have to go to Mexico to embrace nothingness. You don’t have to go anywhere, in fact, but it’s easier when you’re away from the comfortable patterns of work and home life. 

What you do need is the ability to confidently stick to your plan for nothingness. Don’t worry about the fear of missing out, or the crazy efforts to pack in as much as you can on your vacation or weekend. Just do nothing. You’ve earned it. Let your mind and body relax, or they will stage a coup.

Life is more than existing in a state of constant busyness. Find comfort in nothingness. You’ve earned it.

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