Finding Ourselves in ‘Nothing’



How often do we take time out to indulge in some good old-fashioned contemplation? Interestingly, the origin of the word ‘contemplate’ is a combination of the Latin ‘templum’, meaning a ‘place for observation’ and ‘contemplat’ which means surveyed or observed. So by giving ourselves time to contemplate we effectively become a place of inward and outward observation.

In our busy world, stopping ‘doing’ and starting a period of contemplation can seem a bit like waste of precious time at best and a guilt-inducing indulgence at worst. When I think about my own ‘busyness’ I realise that for me doing nothing involves a measure of trust. Believing that the world will survive if I just let go of it for a while takes a bit of a leap of faith! But stopping, shutting down, taking time out can produce positive results.

A few weeks ago I was hours away from running a writing workshop and I hadn’t come up with the main theme or exercise. As I sat at my desk, staring at my laptop, my creativity became harder and harder to reach. The more I tried to do the more I was blocked. Finally, in exasperation I shut my laptop, grabbed my walking boots and headed out to the local woods. I switched off the doing part of my brain and engaged with the sounds and scents around me. In two hours I had the workshop licked and the bones of a new poem to boot!

Taking time just to be a ‘place of observation’ can have deeper therapeutic results than just allowing our brains to come up with new ideas.

Facing the Void

When my husband and I took the agonisingly difficult decision to give up fertility treatment I launched myself into a frenzied period of activity. I thought that by doing, doing, doing I could find some meaning, meaning, meaning! At the same time as holding down a job, I took on a PhD that required me not only to do some challenging research in a foreign country but also to learn Russian. I volunteered at a local school, I started to write poetry ‘seriously’, I went to lectures, debates, study groups… I just didn’t stop. I realise now I was defending against the inevitable big question: ‘Who will I be if not a mother?’

Of course the crisis came. I couldn’t keep up that pace of doing and I burnt out. I decided to give up everything I felt wasn’t nurturing me. So the PhD was abandoned along with the Russian evening classes. It was only once I stopped my frantic ‘doing-in-order-to-find-meaning’ activities that I became a place of contemplation. Of course, it meant that I started to feel the grief I was trying to avoid. But here’s the thing – I was surviving that grief. I was starting to get to know that grief and it was starting to show me who I was and who I could be.

It was Kierkegaard who said ‘We understand our life backwards, but we must live it forwards.’ It is true that it’s in retrospect we might try to find the ‘reason’ for, or meaning of a past event whilst we just keep on keeping on. But sometimes we race forward in order to escape the questions those events present to us. What if for a moment we could stop our desire to pursue the incessant state of ‘fast-forwardness’ that doing or planning our next move forces us into? What if we could become our own place of inward and outward observation – solid, steady and peaceful? Instead of challenging ourselves to ‘beat the world’, what if we started to move with it, still moving forwards but in a way that brings fruitful questions and not self-flagellating demands and ‘shoulds’?

Tomorrow Can Wait!

The picture at the top of the page was taken on a ‘school night’ in Brighton. What strikes me is how all those people seemed to have left all the other stuff of their life behind to take advantage of the late summer warmth, to go to the beach and to stay until the sun had gone and the moon had appeared. As I walked along the beach that evening, I had visions of homework and ironing being abandoned and computer screens fading to sleep on unmanned desks. The preparation for tomorrow could wait!

So many of those beach folk look as though they are in deep contemplation – seemingly doing nothing. I believe there is a very real link between doing nothing, creativity and self-discovery.

On Radio Four this week, Oliver Burkeman broadcast a lovely programme (one of three episodes) on the subject of ‘idleness’ and why we need it. (

The main message of the programme was that our brains are not wired for constant busyness. Rather we’re programmed to ‘do then reflect’. We seem to live in a time when idleness is synonymous with laziness – something to feel guilty about. On another Radio Four programme, Ramblings, the author David Nicholls talked about how getting out and walking – sometimes for 8 hours at a time – is vital for his creativity, ‘although he always worries it’s a bit of a skive!’ (

Nicholls is a prolific writer of acclaimed novels and plays so it seems that doing nothing can and being contemplative reaps creative rewards.

Taking Time to Find the Gift in Loss

My time of contemplation allowed me to be with myself and to engage with what I needed and wanted. What I realised was that my not having children presented me with a gift. The word ‘gift’ might seem counterintuitive when we think about the grief associated with involuntary childlessness. The gift my loss had given me was the courage to contemplate and tolerate the idea of other ways of being. The prospect of motherhood had always been a given and I thought I would fall into the pre-determined patterns, rhythms and aspirations that parenthood brings. But now I was able to ask myself, ‘Actually, who do I want to be?’ I could only understand the loss of childlessness backwards and it was only when I stopped trying to propel myself into the future that I could give myself time to contemplate what that loss meant (and still means) and, most importantly, how I wanted to live my life – without children.

Letting the World Carry You

That ‘time of nothing’ was a powerful hiatus in which I became open to new connections and when I started to look outside myself. During that time I was working as a purser for a large airline. On a night flight from the Middle East I stopped in the middle of the post-dinner clearing up and I started a conversation with a soldier returning from physical rehabilitation after being seriously injured in an explosion in Iraq. At first I felt guilty that I was ‘letting go’ of my clearing up duties –even though I was making an important connection with another person. But as we talked I became so focused on what he was saying that I forgot the world for a few minutes. We talked about the healing power of writing, poetry and creativity and it was there, in the cabin of a 747 I had an epiphany. I realised then that I wanted to share with others the healing potential in creative writing. I didn’t know how to do it at that moment but I had found who I wanted to be. I returned to the galley, feeling a bit sheepish about my absence but no one had actually noticed I hadn’t been there! (I tried not to take it personally!)

For a little while I had let go of the world, stopped my busyness and had engaged in some idleness. Not only had the world NOT collapsed without me; it had started to carry me. And it had given me an answer to one the biggest questions about my own existence.



Unsurprisingly, today’s suggested creative activity is to do absolutely nothing, to stop your state of ‘fast-forwardness’ and to find your own inner place of observation. Take 10, 15, 20 minutes and just stop. Don’t force yourself to think or to not think. Just be. At the end of your period of contemplation if you feel like it, create a piece of writing, drawing or collage about that experience of ‘nothing’, about finding – and being – your own place of observation. Alternatively, take a photo of something that embodies the idea of contemplation.

Enjoy your moments of nothing!

2 thoughts on “Finding Ourselves in ‘Nothing’

  1. Thank you for another inspiring post, Deborah. I intend to fully embrace slowing down, contemplation and reflection. Today, well I didn’t have an epiphany or discover my life’s purpose (that’s for another day I am sure) but I did produce a heart warming pot of soup, my gift to my family. So even the smallest things can make a huge difference. I feel more satisfied than if I had ticked off all those supposedly important tasks on my ‘to do’ list.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s