What To Do When You Are Doing Nothing


“If you don’t get busy, I’ll give you something to do!”

Did you ever hear that – or something like it – when you were younger? You probably still hear your inner voice say the same thing every time you take time for yourself, to relax, or just “do nothing.”

Most of us are very uncomfortable doing nothing, or even just the thought of doing nothing. We feel guilty, unproductive, lazy, anxious, or just plain wrong. We learned those early messages very well, and even when our minds tell us it is okay to do nothing, there is a part of us that tells us to get busy.

As much as we’ve been convinced that doing nothing is wrong on many levels, I believe that it has a valuable place in our lives, maybe on a daily basis. One of the messages of my presentations is that doing nothing is not only permissible, but is often the easiest, quickest, and most effective solution to a problem. It is also a time when inspiration can happen, and a time when the body/mind/soul can take the time to heal.

The art of doing nothing.

That being said, doing nothing is not nearly as easy as it sounds. When you think to yourself, “Now I am doing nothing,” you are thinking, which is doing something. The experience of doing nothing is like watching the sunset. You keep looking at the sun, and then you know that it has gone below the horizon, but it is nearly impossible to capture the exact moment it disappeared. So we sit and think about doing nothing, but we usually miss the moment when it happens. We realize later that some time has passed when we must have been “daydreaming,” or we wake up from a nap and feel guilty about sleeping when we should have been doing “nothing.”

Over the years I have collected a series of activities that get us as close as possible to the “doing nothing” state. We can do one or more of these activities, and then let the doing nothing part happen naturally. The nice thing is that we can be very productive while we are preparing for the experience of having done nothing.

ABRA breath is the beginning.

One of the most enjoyable and productive activities you can do when you are doing nothing is the ABRA breath. The name is an acronym for “Alan’s Breathing Regulation Activator.” Or, you can think of ABRA as the beginning of abracadabra, because the breathing technique is the first step to magic. The magic of relaxation, inner peace, doing nothing, or healing.

Did you ever notice that you can talk all day, never take a full breath, and never run out of air before the end of a sentence or phrase? It is as if our inner system knows what we are going to say before we do! The lungs can fill up with exactly the amount of air we Need to make our speaking work, all without our conscious awareness. I find this amazing. This suggests that our inhale isn’t nearly as important as we think, and that there is great power in the exhale.

(Does this also mean that we may be able to trust our inner selves more than we do now? Maybe if we interfere less, we can be happier, healthier, and more peaceful.)

The ABRA breath may be the quickest and easiest stress reliever there is. It is certainly the easiest of all the breathing exercises I’ve ever learned. After you’ve learned it, the whole process is composed of just one step. Not only does it work to relieve stress, to relax mind and body, the ABRA breath works well to put one in an altered state of consciousness. It produces a state where you can be very comfortable doing nothing.

ABRA breath, step by step.

Are you ready to learn the ABRA breath? The first thing to do is something you do many times every day without effort, without thinking about it. But as soon as I ask you to do it, you won’t be able to.

The first step: Breathe normally. … See? Now that you are thinking about it, you cannot breathe normally anymore. When you think about an activity that you usually do unconsciously, the activity isn’t normal any more. Just do the best you can.

As you exhale one of your normal breaths, at the very moment when you are ready to inhale again, breathe out a little more air instead. Don’t breathe it all out, just push a little bit more. Did you notice how much air was left that you weren’t going to exhale? That’s a part of the breath that we never get to. Did you also notice that when you let go (or pushed) a little bit more air out before inhaling, that your body relaxed? That you felt a bit more settled? More quiet?

That is the ABRA breath! Just letting go of a little bit more air than you took in, a little bit more air than you usually do. I cannot think of anything simpler, more mechanical, or more powerful. It works on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level.

The ABRA breath at work.

Do you need more proof of how the ABRA breath affects the body? Right now, take a full breath and hold it. Assuming that you could get the air you need to live, is this a comfortable place for you body to be? Probably not. Now if you exhale, and hold that position, and you imagine that you have air to live on, you may notice that you are more comfortable. Your body feels more at rest, and more ready for anything that you want to do.

Most people, when asked to “take a deep breath and relax,” usually focus on the inhalation. They take a big breath in when they are told to relax, instead of the ABRA breath. As is often the case, this is exactly the opposite of what’s needed. Then they will say, “I tried that relaxation technique, and it didn’t work for me. Maybe I need better instruction, or it only works on a mountaintop in the Himalayas, or maybe this stuff is just a bunch of hooey!” All they need to do is breathe out!

Many breathing exercises ask you to breath in to a count of 4, and breath out to a count of 8. Forcing you to do an ABRA breath. My own preference is to do it without the numbers.

There are a couple more clues that doing the ABRA breath is a natural way to relax and begin to do nothing. The term “Nirvana” brings ideas of heaven, or peace to most people who are familiar with the term. But the literal translation of the term is “blow out.” Instead of describing a state of consciousness, the word “Nirvana” is telling us how to get there!

If you suddenly notice that there is a tiger in the room, you will naturally take a quick, forceful breath in. If you realize that what you see is just a picture of a tiger, you’d let out a big sigh of relief, maybe along with a “Whew!” sound. Breathing in sets up a fear response. It sends the signal to the body, “Uh-oh!” Breathing out sets up a relaxation response. It sends the signal to the body that everything is okay.

So if you want to relax, breathe out a little more than you just breathed in. If you want meditate, or do nothing, using two or three ABRA breaths will immediately take you to a meditative/self-hypnotic/relaxed/altered state.

Martial arts people will exhale as they attack. That’s when you are your most powerful.

As a professional musician, I noticed that many of us were more concerned with how much air we took in. I was so concerned with getting as much air in as possible, and using as little air on the way out, that by the time I needed it, I couldn’t use it. I had to take a new breath without using all of my old air. This caused me a lot of problems when I played.

I then discovered that if I changed how I let my air out, it automatically made my inhalation more effective. The surprising thing is that I could play longer phrases if I let my air out faster! That’s really when I learned how important our exhalation is compared to our inhalation.

Try it for yourself.

ABRA breath comes in handy in many situations. If you are getting a vaccination at the doctor’s office, try breathing out when you get it. See if the needle hurts less. It seems counter intuitive; most of us suck in air and hold our breath when we brace for the pain.

Can you think of other situations where your ABRA breathing will help?

There are many ways to be productive when you are doing nothing (or getting close), and ABRA breath is a great way to start!