If you are brought up in a country of the West, chances are that the word emptiness invokes negative connotations. Lack of meaning, lack of emotions and affect, aimless activity, no vision, no desires or dreams.
Travel a bit eastward and, maybe, a few centuries back in time, and emptiness presents itself in all its buddhist glory. Emptiness, there, is the ceasing from all worldly and, therefore, according to buddhism, vain, preoccupations. Becoming void of desires, intentions, object directed thoughts, purposeful mental activity allows the inner truths to take shape. It’s immersing oneself into the primordial vacuum, which is full of light and potentialities.
It was in a moment of afternoon relaxation, doing nothing, expecting nothing, wishing for nothing, staring at the gentle beams of the setting sun coming through the window, while my daughter was crisscrossing the room cheerfully, exercising her newly found walking ability, that I remembered good old Buddha. Probably a podcast I listened recently worked its subconscious way to bring up such an association. The podcast was about two books from Stephen Asma, the first about the origin of the imagination and the other about religion.
Daydreaming, letting the thoughts follow the obscure and, often, unexpected paths of free association, is an endangered species of mental activity. When at home, we watch TV or surf the web. In the car we listen to music or radio broadcasts. A bus or the metro have become synonymous of people hooked on their smartphones.
When awake, we rarely stop focusing our attention onto something. Our activities are the outcome of intention. Unlike children, we have stopped playing, exploring, being open to the unknown and the unexpected.
Imagination is the offspring of day dreaming and free association. And religion, Buddhism is particular is a means of emotional healing and rehabilitation. At least, that’s what I remember Asma saying in the podcast.
The above may sound overly philosophical, without practical importance or significance, suitable for lazy, navel-gazing. Wrong! Practical people are interested at least in one aspect of doing nothing: creativity and innovation.
I can’t recall how many times I have read the story of August Kekulé’s discovery of the molecular structure of Benzene. Kekule was long trying to solve this problem in vain. One night, while he was sitting by the fireplace, weary from the day’s labours, he started drowsing and in his reverie he saw a snake bitting its own tail. The image is an ancient symbol, a reference to ouboros (ουροβόρος), the tail eating snake. The image, by association, led Kekulé to imagine the shape of Benzene’s molecule as a ring. And he soon confirmed experimentally that it is actually a hexagon.
In terms of neural correlates, daydreaming and free association are related to the creation of new synapses, the formation of new neural paths and networks, connecting, often remote, parts of the brain to each other. The new connection literally transform the brain giving rise to new functions and possibilities. The subject experiences this new synapse formation as spark, enlightenment, problem solving, innovation and creativity.
You might argue that we don’t need to let daydreaming reign as there is the real, night time, dreaming that is a similar, if not superior, activity. “Sleep on it”, we say when we advise someone to ‘outsource’ problem solving to sleep. And it works. But like daydreaming, real dreaming is also under siege. We are all sleep deprived, and, again screens are the most usual culprit.
Apart of the practical aspects of doing nothing, letting our brains reshape, recalibrate and reform brings into our consciousness aspects of ourselves unknown. Realisations, understanding, comprehending and emotional deepening. In short, it begets psychological growth and maturity.
Time to stop.