This is an essay I wrote for Outside Bozeman. It was pretty heavily edited, so I am posting the whole thing here.
Last summer, my kids and I spent four or five days sitting by the Yellowstone River. Well, I sat, my then five and six-year-old, high-energy boys threw rocks, swam, crawled through willows, and built sand mounds. I watched them play for hours as the river cruised by behind them.
Swallows skimmed the water for insects and darted in and out of their holes in the mud cliff. Anglers floated past casting for trout and accolades. I leaned back in my chair, slathered on another layer of sunscreen, and passed out watermelon slices.
Like most people, I get busy. Work, home, family, friends, communitysometimes its a commitment overload. Then I feel like I need to make my free time count, so I hike up mountains, train for a marathon, backpack through the Beartooths, dance at a music festival, or take mini-adventures with my family. Theres very little down time and sitting still wasnt a priority. This summer will be different. This summer, doing nothing will be a priority.
Constant work and obligations leads to health problems. We seize up and stress out. Dr. Frances Pitsilis, a specialist in stress-related illness wrote, At least 50 percent of people are stressed. We are on a treadmill. We have forgotten what its like to be normal, we dont recognize our signals to rest.
Doing nothing allows us to recharge, making us more productive in the long run.
The most advanced structure of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, is most active during self-preoccupation. When doing nothing, the brain moves into a deeper state where intuitive thoughts and imagination come through without being controlled, forced, curtailed, or judged. This explains why so many great ideas come to us when we are in the shower, falling asleep, or daydreaming. Our prefrontal cortex relaxes into the silence and comes up with innovative thoughts. Doing nothing is conducive to insight.
Even in the wilds of Montana we overvalue busyness and undervalue serenity and emptiness. Zen Master Tich Nhat Hanh says to cultivate aimlessness, In our society, were inclined to see doing nothing as something negative, even evil. But when we lose ourselves in activities we diminish our quality of being. We do ourselves a disservice.
I dont want to do myself that disservice anymore. I love the idea of being aimless and seeing what comes about. Im not looking for more productivity, or a genius idea, although I wouldnt turn either of those away. I want to make time slow down. Summer is short in Montana and I want to savor every minute of it. I want to feel sunshine on my face, river sand on my feet, and a downriver breeze.
I want my kids to stop growing up so fast. This is the only summer they will be six and seven-years-old. I only get a little of that, and I want it to last as long as possible. I think sitting along the Yellowstone all day can lengthen our time. It sure beats running from soccer camp to art camp to whatever camp. Instead of learning how to sculpt, theyll realize (relative) stillness. Instead of head butting a ball, theyll discover the joy letting their brains wander.
I like feeling the miles slip beneath my feet. I like working hard and helping support my family. I am drawn to exploring new places and peaking over the next saddle. But, I think there is also benefit in sitting still next to the Yellowstone River week after week, slowing down the time it takes my kids to grow, quieting my prefrontal cortex, and letting the creative juices flow.