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« Charleston Bicycle Lecture Series | Main | The Invisible Cyclist: Part II »

The art of doing nothing

I have been practicing doing nothing for the last 17 years; I began about the time I left the bike business in 1993.

If you think that sounds easy, the next time you go to a doctor’s office or take your car in for an oil change, try to sit in the waiting room with your hands in your lap, and do nothing.

Do not pick up a magazine or fiddle with your cell phone, and more important keep your mind blank, free of any thought.

In the 1990s to achieve this state of mind I would have to make a point to set time aside each day to meditate. I did not get into meditation out of any desire to engage in some mystic eastern religion, but after reading about the practice it seemed like a good idea.

At the time my mind was constantly filled with negative thoughts, and as a result my life was filled with negativity. Throughout my waking hours my mind was filled with either thoughts of the past or future.

I was either reliving the bad events of my past, or worrying about the possible misfortunes of the future.

My daily life was a constant torment and I realized it was of my own making. No matter how hard I tried my past would never get any better; so what was the point of constantly reliving it, over and over.

The same with the future; it was only imagined. I was mourning some future bad event before it even happened. Worse still, my negative thoughts most probably brought about the very thing I was worrying about.

At least by consciously sitting quietly and pushing all thought from my mind, I was not thinking negatively. At first it was extremely difficult; I could not go but a minute or so before a thought about something or other would pop into my head.

I became an observer of my own mind; I could see that one idle random thought would lead to another and pretty soon there would be a whole train of thought leading to who knows where.

At first my meditation sessions went something like this: Sit with my mind blank… a thought pops in… push it out… repeat… sit with my mind blank. In time, the periods I could consciously keep my mind blank increased, and if thoughts did pop in, they were pushed out with ease.

Even more beneficial, in time throughout the day while driving to work, or during my time at work I observed idle thoughts entering my mind; idle chatter that served no useful purpose. I began to consciously push these thoughts from my mind and keep it blank.

It probably took me about five years of effort to banish idle chatter from my mind. Today I rarely set aside actual time to meditate; instead I practice keeping my mind blank at all times.

While I sit and drink my coffee in the morning, if I drive my car, or ride my bike; or as I already pointed out while sitting in a waiting room somewhere.

Having a blank mind while driving or riding my bike is actually better and safer than being deep in thought. To be deep in thought, especially about something troubling is to be distracted, even to be in a state of trance.

Driving or riding a bike does not require conscious thought to anyone with experience; it is automatic. By that I mean even defensive riding is automatic. Keeping the mind clear of extraneous thought, one is actually more alert should an emergency occur.

Keeping my mind blank is like sitting in front of a blank computer screen, or having a blank page of a notebook in front of me. It is an opportunity for creative thoughts to appear.

Just as it is impossible to convey my thoughts to someone else if that person will not stop talking and listen; if my mind is filled with constant chatter, creative thoughts have nowhere to enter.

I can highly recommend doing nothing when nothing is required; my life is mostly stress free. It is not necessary to be thinking if all you have to achieve is waiting for the oil to be changed in your car.  It is not difficult either, but it does take time; it is not going to happen overnight


Reader Comments (17)

Sounds like it could be beneficial but not sure if I'd have the patience for it.

February 15, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterstephen_mc

Dave, I'm sure that concentrating on the task at hand while riding or driving is safer and more enjoyable than just "blanking out". Besides, at our age we need to live and enjoy every minute instead of spending it in a coma before it's all over. There'll be plenty of time for that in the hereafter.

February 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

My take: Dave is using his discretion to filter what’s around him. When I’m riding, I am aware of everything around me (360 degrees). I’m also sensitive to myself, and carry on an internal dialogue: “How am I feeling?” “Can I push a bit harder?” and others that I answer from feedback, paying attention to what my body and mind are telling me.
Same with sitting in a waiting room: rather than devolve my thoughts to others, I choose what I think about.
I choose how I react because I know the possibilities.
If on the starting line of my next race I appear uninterested, I am actually hyper-sensitive to so much that only experience can maintain the façade of apathy.
All the more available to direct to my goal of winning.


February 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Dave. I have NO answer OR thoughts on this. MY MIND JUST WENT BLANK! John Old whatismyname?

February 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Crump

I know exactly what he is referring to. While driving I often "go blank". It's not that I'm oblivious to what is going on around me - on the contrary I find my reaction time to be better than normal while in this state. It's just that I'm not thinking about anything in particular.

I would like to meditate some myself. In the past few years my mind has become increasingly jumbled and at times it can be difficult to concentrate on the task at hand (usually this happens at work...). Riding is often good for the soul, but I need to learn how to clear my head "whenever".

February 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterToddBS

"Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit...." The gulf between these two actions is unfathomable.

February 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFOG

My favorite way to eliminate the negative in my head is to do stream of consciousness writing. Write three pages as fast as you can by hand with no editing. If you get stuck just write the same thing over and over: the stuck will pass. Usually somewhere on the second page the junk starts coming out. I never go back and read it and my family has strict instructions not to even open the notebook. I come out the other end feeling like the sun is shining. It's an active meditation junk dump.
My bike works pretty good too.

February 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRedtaildd

…so the story goes: an American businessman is taken on a tour of a Swiss watch manufacturer. He sees everyone looking through eyepieces, and tells the owner “They aren’t doing anything!”

Cut to Gray’s Anatomy: Derek is about to attempt a complex brain surgery to remove a tumor. He is looking through the microscope in surgery; one hour passes, still looking. Two hours, four hours, not a cut is made. Finally they must close her up, after Derek demurs.

Doing nothing or doing everything necessary? One perception controls you, the other frees you.

Maybe that is the problem with coffee houses also.


February 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Self-awareness can be painful. Making the time to be idle for me is a chore. I tend to view the associated pause in physical activity as a loss rather than a gain. I very much appreciate this timely article. As of today my physician ordered bed rest & to listen to my body to promote healing. The trauma I recieved to bring me to this point has been almost as mentally severe as physically. I very much wish to gain clarity going forward.

February 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTom Knoblauch

Great piece.

I'm at a point of my life where it seems impossible to do nothing and just think. Two kids at home, ages 6 and 10 - combined with work, assisting with homework, projects, kid sports - and the other complexities of modern life. We do what we can to cut some of it down, but at times - it's just plain loopy.

The bike is my escape - mind can be blank or just wander as desired. As we all know, it's a great form of meditation itself. Perfect.

Your article reminded me of times when my mind was totally blank - rare, so I still remember it - would occur during my motorcycle motocross days. I'd be roosting around the track, so focused - mind was blank. I get short periods of that today on my mountain bike flying through the woods, but nothing like my MX days.

Anyway - cool post.

February 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDan O


When we talk about a method to end dukkha(sufferings), the words are one thing and the practice is quite another. The method of practice is a method of developing sati (awareness) in all positions: standing, walking, sitting and lying. This practice has frequently been called satipatthana (the grounds of awareness), but whatever you call it the point is to be aware of yourself. If you are aware of yourself, then moha (delusion) will disappear. You should develop awareness of yourself by being aware of all your bodily movements, such as turning your hands, raising and lowering your forearms, walking forward and back, turning and nodding your head, blinking your eyes, opening your mouth, inhaling, exhaling, swallowing saliva, and so on. You must be aware of all of these movements, and this awareness is called sati. When you have awareness of yourself, the unawareness, which is called moha, or delusion, will disappear.

read more here:

February 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBkk

Dave, I really enjoyed this post, and know exactly what you are talking about.


February 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJan

Once again the GREAT Dave Moulton nails down a most important fact and basis for healthy living. Thanks for sharing and always the best to you Dave!

February 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMike

ahh the monkey chatter. I've noticed this myself, at times my mind just starts playing the negative tape. Me giving me a hard time. And I like myself.
I've gotten much better at shutting it off when the first stray negative thought pops up.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of cycling (and for me skate skiing) is that in order to do it well, my mind must be focussed, yet blank. Simply reacting to the trail or road and the feedback my legs and body are providing from moment to moment. If I go on a ride (especially on the mtb) or ski and my mind is working over personal issues or phantom problems then sure enough I find my balance is off, my timing is too early or late. On the MTB this usually results in a biff and bruise situation.
I've abandoned rides befoe because I simply could not get my mind blank. Oddly, on the roade bike its a little different. I can be working through stuff mentally while I pound my way up the first climbs here and eventually the sweat and rhythm takes over and I get home a simple homo sapien.

February 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterskylab

Good post, Dave. When the mind is active it's because it resists what is happening now. The mind is past or future it cannot control either instead the mind makes worry and regret.

And, you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are like clouds floating by, watch them they may be interesting but soon they are gone.

February 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark

just discovered this website - absolutely brilliant Dave. loads of great info (especially on sizing a bike) - cheers!

March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWest Green

:) good topic and the way you call it "the art of doing nothing"..

December 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermircea andrei ghinea

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