I thought I was doing nothing, but it turns out I was doing something: I was doing niksen, if that is the right verb. Niksen is the Dutch art of intentionally being unproductive. It is the art of doing nothing, and I’ve been doing (or not doing) it a lot recently.
By now, most of us have heard about various such concepts for a better life, like hygge (Scandinavian: slowing down) and meraki (Greek: passionate engagement), as well as several of Japanese origin, like ikigai (having a life purpose), wabi-sabi (embracing imperfection), kaizen (continuous improvement) and mottainai (sustainable usage; I cannot help but read this last one in Tamil every time, unfortunately). These words succinctly encapsulate deeper philosophies about living more consciously.
Did you know that leisure is a human right, according to the United Nations? Specifically, Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” I love that this phrasing lends itself equally to capitalism as well as to the other socioeconomic models which consider productivity (“the hustle”, as we call it nowadays) imperative.
I learned this fact in an article by Olga Mecking and Ruth Terry; Meking authored a whole book on niksen. I don’t intend to read the book, as it kind of seems counterintuitive to, but it’s clear from this decision that I’ve imbibed its core principle.
The truth is: I was, and am, burnt out. Events in my personal life over the last few years devastated me, and I was already wrung out when I made some bad professional choices against my instincts and other people’s wiser warnings this year. The only way to stop the accumulating distress was to, well, stop doing things. So I cut back, cut cords, cut my budget, cut a long story short. I began doing less, purposefully.
Yesterday, I let myself enjoy the sheer relief of acquiescence to the idea of just giving up on some of the things I’ve been working toward. It was delicious. It’s not so much what I did in that state of acceptance than the way it felt that mattered. Today, I woke thoroughly exhausted, with my chronic pain issues flaring in my body. I was fortunate to have access to someone skilled at massage. “You’re in pain all the time, aren’t you?” she asked after a point. “Frequently,” I semi-lied. The body keeps score, but isn’t constantly loud about it.
It’s usually good to have language to describe one’s experience, but I don’t know if knowing about niksen will help me shape my cognition of mine, and my recognition of my needs, better. But I am glad the term and its meaning exist, for they allow others who cannot identify with the kind of bone-deep burnout I’m going through to understand what I may need better. I’m also obviously not alone in such a state of being, nor is this prescription unique for me. Medicinal doses of doing nothing, measured out thoughtfully, are probably needed by more people than would care to admit it. But I, well, do.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in November 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.