In The Dunes

Re-learning how to do nothing

Nothing can be more useful to a man than a determination not to be hurried.—Henry David Thoreau, Journal, March 22, 1842

Mornings grow colder with every passing day. The sunrise edges a little further south every time I crest the dunes to watch. The wind howls most mornings, a biting cold that cuts through the layers of wool I pile on in a futile attempt to keep warm. But the sunrises. Never the same, always spectacular.

In the popular imagination, living in an RV — or #vanlife as my editors at Wired insist on calling it — is one of leisure and relaxation. We all spend hours drinking coffee in the sunshine, reading in hammocks, doing yoga on the beach, or in my case, hanging out with my wife and kids.i

I have been known to spend a while drinking my coffee in the sunshine, and our family is together almost all the time, but by and large, this is not how I’ve been spending my days lately. It should be how I spend my days. It should be how we all spend our days, lingering over the things we love, but life has a way of finding other things to eat up our time.

I get to the point where I feel antsy whenever I am not doing something. Maybe antsy isn’t the right word. I feel like I should be doing something whenever I am not doing something. That creates a low grade stress that permeates life. When you’re feeling like you should be doing something else it pulls you out of whatever you’re trying to do and you end up doing nothing.

I did not use to be this way. I remember, and I have even written about, finding peace in doing nothing but listening to the rain.

What happened? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Somewhere in the last five years I lost touch with that ability to relax into any situation, an ability I think is the key to traveling well. How did I lose touch with something so essential?

I don’t know exactly, but I know that these days I feel like there is always something that needs to be done: a meal that needs to be made, an engine that needs to repaired, a child that needs attention, a thing to write, a thing to edit, a thing to call in. Something always needs to be done that keeps you from doing what you want to do.

That probably sounds a lot like your life as well. That’s why I am writing this, to let you know that the solution to feeling overwhelmed is not buying an RV and hitting the open road. Modernity will find you, and try to hurry your life along, even out here.

This is where Thoreau comes in. “Nothing can be more useful to a man than a determination not to be hurried.” I’m sure if he were writing today, Thoreau would say “person” rather than “man”, but the point is that it takes a determination not to be hurried. Thoreau wrote that in March of 1842, in case you were thinking hectic lives were a recent phenomena.

I dug through a 1906 copy of Thoreau’s complete journals to see if there was any additional context to that thought, but there isn’t. It’s a single line set off by itself, no connection to any of the ideas around it. It stands on its own though I think.

Something about Thoreau’s phrasing, “a determination”, made me realize that not only was I hurried by things that should not be hurrying me, but that this state, this feeling of always needing to do something, was a state of existence I had allowed myself to fall into. I lost the awareness of it that you must have to resist it — because if you aren’t determined not to be hurried, you will be. You are in charge of how your mind works. It’s your responsibility to stop the hurrying.

That’s why I like Thoreau’s particular phrasing here. It takes work, determination, not to be hurried. If you aren’t working at it, life is going to rush you along with no time to appreciate the sound of the rain or enjoy that coffee in the sunshine. I find it both heartening to know that Thoreau had this problem, and somewhat depressing that Thoreau had this problem — despite being nearly 200 years on, life seems to be no less noisy. Same as it ever was.

It was around this time that I started running out over the dunes to watch the sunrise every morning. It was driven mostly by a desire to see what was over the hill from the bus. From the bus all I could see was the sky and I would wonder, what does the sea look like? So I ran over the dunes nearly every morning. Sometimes with a camera, sometimes not. I had to see what was on the other side.

After I did my morning rituals out there I would sit down and watch the sunrise. It was rarely the relaxing sort of reverie you might be thinking, this is the Outer Banks after all, and it’s nearly December. Usually the wind was blowing at least 10 knots and the temperature was rarely above 40. Mostly I sat with my teeth chattering, desperately wishing I was back in the warm bus, unable to feel my toes, but there to watch the sun rise and do nothing else. To force on myself the unhurriedness of sitting still, observing the world.

It took a while to work. At first I was trying to hard to get something out of it. That doesn’t work. It wasn’t until it became routine that I started to find my way back to the relaxed kind of energy I was seeking.

The key turned out to be bringing my notebook with me, not to write down some profound insight, I had none of those, but to write down all the things that were on my mind instead of the sunrise in front of me. It’s not until you clear all the hurriedness out of your mind that you can begin to relax. You can never relax when you feel there are other things you need to be doing. The secret to being relaxed is to be okay not doing the things that need to be done.

There is no true relaxation until you are mentally free of all the hurriedness, that feeling that there’s something you should be doing. The way to get to that state, for me anyway, is to write down everything that needs to be done, know that it’s all in a notebook I can look at from time to time, and then get on with life. It is of course one thing to know this intellectually and another to stay on top of it.

There’s an interesting dichotomy at work here: in order to relax, you need to be disciplined. This is where I failed. I was not being disciplined in my determination to remain unhurried. I was not doing the work of keeping my life organized so that I could in turn relax and be unhurried.

As an aside, I find the larger lesson here fascinating and instructive: the path to wisdom seems to begin in the mundane ability to keep track of your commitments so you can get them off your mind, which then frees your mind up to thing about other, if not higher, than certainly more interesting things.

In the end it wasn’t going into the dunes to watch the sunrise that brought me back around to a more relaxed state, it was bringing my notebook with me and clearing my mind into it. Once that was done, I could watch the sunrise without worrying that I should be doing something else. It’s not a solution exactly, more of an ongoing practice. Not only in the dunes, but everywhere, carving out time to empty your mind of commitments so that you can be free to live a more relaxed, unhurried life. Not a grand revelation, just a short run through the dunes and a little while sitting still. If only it had been a bit warmer.


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