As someone who has suffered from depression for over a decade, I have read SO many self-help books, and followed the wellness trends from many holistic sources. They all have one thing in common: they require me to DO something about my life. They tell me how I can improve my life in a myriad of ways. Some of them have been helpful, don't get me wrong, but if you're familiar with depression, not wanting to DO anything is quite common. Niksen, or the Dutch art of doing nothing, offers an alternative: doing nothing. I'm a pro at doing nothing! In fact, it's in my nature. Believe it or not, it's in our human nature as a species as well. We try to constantly improve our efficiency, so we can save our energy for things we enjoy. Even in our hunter and gatherer days as a species, we found time to rest and do nothing. And we did it outside in nature, which offers us so many insights and connections. If this practice of Niksen in nature sounds appealing, read on my friends.
What is Niksen?
Niksen is much more than just doing nothing. To be a little more precise, it's actually doing something, but without a purpose. Just idling along, staring out the window, waiting in line, or enjoying a cup of your favorite beverage. And for those folks whose bodies consider it torture to sit and do nothing, a leisurely walk works too. But there's no goal in mind. No destination. Your brain is not necessarily engaged, except for the involuntary functions that keep you alive and safe. For some people, niksen could even mean knitting or doing the dishes. If you can zone out and daydream while you do it, it can be called niksen.
Benefits of Niksen
Have you ever tried SO hard to remember a detail or event, only to think of it later while in the shower? Or while driving home? Believe it or not, when we engage in Niksen, there are actually more neurons firing in our brains. When we are focused on a task, only the parts of our brain that are needed for that task are engaged. But when we rest, more of our brain is "lit up," allowing us to think of things and make connections that we won't when we're focused on a task. In this way, Niksen helps foster creativity and problem solving. In a sense, doing nothing can actually make us more productive in the long run!
There is a playful aspect to doing nothing. When we're doing nothing, we engage with the things around us in a curious way, which can create awe or wonder. This yields a playful experience in our brains and bodies. Imagine how a child lights up when they're walking along and discover a ladybug with just one spot, or a camouflaged lizard waiting and watching them. We are tapping into this childlike playfulness when we engage in a little Niksen as well.
What Niksen in Not
Niksen is not work, or even thinking about work, and it's definitely not worrying. Both can look like nothing to an outsider, but inside, you know your mind is racing. It's also not mindfulness or meditation, which take some awareness and effort. Nor is it simply boredom, during which you wish you were doing something else. It's not reading, watching TV or browsing social media, which all demand your brain's attention.
Doing nothing doesn't come naturally to many people. We strive to be efficient and multitask, aiming to be successful, whether that's at home or work. In most societies, there is a stigma around doing nothing, and hence being lazy. We often feel guilty when we're doing nothing, thinking of what we should be doing, or comparing ourselves to others and their "superior productivity." In our western (OK, mostly American) culture, people who are constantly busy are more valued and sought after. So it's no wonder we feel guilty when we slow down.
If you're having trouble justifying Niksen time (also called time to Niks), first notice how you're using the term "doing nothing." Do you say you're doing nothing when you're really doing something, like reading, watching TV or browsing your phone? Do you feel anxious about doing nothing because of any pre-conceived notions about being productive? If so, try reframing Niksen in the following ways:
Is Niksen for Everyone?
There are some people for whom Niksen may not be beneficial. Those with depression and other mental illnesses may benefit more from putting themselves out there and doing something to stave off the dark cloud hovering over them. This has been a struggle for me, determining whether I need to get out there or retreat into self-care and doing nothing. I've learned to try getting out there, and if I feel like my heavy cloud is still with me and not lifting, then I know I need to slow down and focus on some self-care, like Niksen.
Like any other practice or skill, it will take some time to understand and reap the benefits of Niksen. Start by looking for times during your days where you may already have some down time to try Niksen. Do you sit with a cup of coffee every morning? Could you take some time during your lunch break? Perhaps taking time to watch the sunrise or sunset? Or maybe you sit in line or traffic, or ride public transportation, and could allow yourself a little time to put your phone away and just look around and Niks? Once you've tried it, you can create more of it in your daily life. You definitely don't have to wait for the weekend or vacation time to allow yourself time to Niks.
Make Room for More Niksen Time (in Nature)
I cannot get into all the benefits of nature in this post (that'll be a whole separate post), but I'm sure you've heard of how beneficial time in nature can be for our wellness, and especially our mental health. I choose to Niks in nature exactly for this reason, and because it's easier. If I Niks inside, it's hard not to see all the tasks that need to be done. But outside, my mind is always able to wander more easily. And there's much more to see and engage with, and get curious about.
So now you know where the term Niksen Nature comes from! I hope you've learned to appreciate the joy and benefit of doing nothing, and that you'll get out and try it yourself to see what connections and inspirations come your way.
Teacher, mother, lover of lounging in nature. This blog documents my experience with Niksening in nature and applying this type of minimalism to all aspects of my life, in order to simplify and amplify the best parts of life.
Niksen Nature is also on Medium! If you're interested in having curated articles like these in your inbox each week, check it out here.