How to Practice Niksen, the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing

Be mindless.

By Riley Reed
what is breathwork

The concept of doing nothing at all is one of the most authentic, self-fulfilling acts of rest, oftentimes overlooked in our go, go, go western society. I know this all too well. I grew up in a high-achievement household and played tennis for 15 years which meant I moved away from home at just 12 years old to pursue a professional career. As you might imagine, I grew up fast. And those elevated expectations I strived for still withstand today.

So, I have to be careful with how I conceptualize rest. If I think of it as a radical act, it feels more like a task.

But rest shouldn’t be revolutionary. It is a necessity of life. It is to be practiced with ease; less of an action and more of a passive settling in. It’s less about doing something and more about not doing anything at all.

I once wrote a 20-page paper about Leonardo da Vinci in college (fascinating guy). I’ll never forget learning that at one point in his life, he spent the majority of his days sitting under a tree. Literally. That’s it. He’d just sit there thinking about everything and nothing at all.

I think that’s where we’ve lost ourselves. We don’t sit under trees anymore. However, there’s a current move towards taking a cue from other cultures’ practices such as Niksen, the Dutch lifestyle concept of doing nothing in an effort to rise above busy schedules and stressful responsibilities. We’re discovering that in that space of nothingness lies a whole lot of substance.

What is Niksen?

In her book, Niksen: The Dutch Art Of Doing Nothing, Carolien Janssen defines Niksen as

“similar to mindfulness, yet you don’t need anything special to do nothing.”

If you want to practice it, she writes,

“slow down and celebrate the moment of not achieving.”

Niksen comes from The Netherlands and though some deem it synonymous with laziness… well, it’s not. In fact, niksen can stimulate productivity and re-engage your mind by allowing it to breathe. It is essentially an embodiment of purposelessness. What’s beautiful about it and the art of living is that you have the autonomy and uniqueness to determine what version of niksen works best for you.

Not to be confused with mindfulness, niksen is in fact more of mindlessness. It is a conscious decision to allow your mind to disengage so that it may wander.

Sound easy? Consider the last time you did nothing. (That’s what I thought.)

Why is Niksen good for you?

I actually wrote about this recently. One of my favorite things to do is to leave the house without my phone, bound for a new, nature-filled space with my dog. I absolutely love purposeless walks and I’ve indulged in them during 2020 more than ever. Walking aimlessly allows me to revel in the way I walk, rather than focus on exterior components. It brings me back to my basic senses and instincts, reminding me to lean into the little things of life. Hearing my feet hit the pavement or the wind rustle the trees becomes a meditative act. And thus, creatively, it’s incredibly inspiring and rejuvenating.

Rest does not have to be an active form of self-care. Leisurely moments do not have to be productive.

In fact, deep relaxation comes from letting go of control over your environment and your own personal ecosystem.

How do you practice niksen?

Normalizing rest is incorporating it into your daily practice without leaning on adrenaline. It is arriving into space with the intent to clarify and relax. Nowadays, our careers and lives are so enmeshed that they often speak to each other. In fact, we might even consider our holiday an opportunity to recharge for work. Niksen is about leaving the working world altogether. Rather than recovering from work or preparing for the next quarter, the holiday is instead used for indulgence and idleness.

Things you can do to practice the art of doing nothing:

  • When you are waiting in line at the grocery store, don’t look at your phone.
  • While your coffee is brewing in the morning watch the water drip, drip.
  • Go on a walk without music, a podcast, or a phone call. Listen to your feet crunch as you step on gravel.
  • Lie in a field and watch the clouds shift across the sky.
  • Sit in your favorite chair and look out the window.
  • Close your laptop and rest your eyes.
  • Daydream.
  • Sit under a tree. 🙂

Remember, there is no wrong or right way to practice niksen. There is only your way. Shed your need to accomplish something. To practice this soothing technique, all you have to do is allow yourself to do nothing at all.