How to De-Stress with Niksen, the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing

Stressed out? Over­whelmed? If you said no, I’d wor­ry whether you have a func­tion­ing ner­vous sys­tem. For those of us who don’t get out much now because of the pan­dem­ic, even stay­ing home has become a source of stress. We’re iso­lat­ed or being dri­ven up the wall by beloved fam­i­ly mem­bers. We’re grasp­ing at every stress-relief tool we can find. For those who have to leave for work, espe­cial­ly in med­i­cine, read­ing the head­lines before mask­ing up for a shift must make for high­er than aver­age blood pres­sure, at least. Every major health agency has issued men­tal health guide­lines for cop­ing dur­ing the coro­n­avirus. Not many gov­ern­ments, how­ev­er, are forth­com­ing with fund­ing for men­tal health sup­port. That’s not even to men­tion, well…. name your super-col­lid­ing glob­al crises….

So, we med­i­tate, or squirm in our seats and hate every sec­ond of try­ing to med­i­tate. Maybe it’s not for every­one. Even as a long­time med­i­ta­tor, I wouldn’t go around pro­claim­ing the prac­tice a cure-all. There are hun­dreds of tra­di­tions around the world that can bring peo­ple into a state of calm relax­ation and push wor­ries into the back­ground. For rea­sons of cold, and maybe gen­er­ous parental leave, cer­tain North­ern Euro­pean coun­tries have turned stay­ing home into a for­mal tra­di­tion. There’s IKEA, of course (not the assem­bly part, but the shop­ping and sit­ting in a new­ly assem­bled IKEA chair with sat­is­fac­tion part). Then there’s lagom, the Swedish prac­tice of “approach­ing life with an ‘every­thing in mod­er­a­tion,’ mind­set” as Sophia Got­tfried writes at TIME.

Hygge, “the Dan­ish con­cept that made stay­ing in and get­ting cozy cool” may not be a path to greater aware­ness, but it can make shel­ter­ing in place much less upset­ting. A few years back, it was “Move Over, Marie Kon­do: Make Room for the Hygge Hordes,” in The New York Times’ win­ter fash­ion sec­tion. As win­ter approach­es once more (and I hate to tell you, but it’s prob­a­bly gonna be a stress­ful one), Hygge is mak­ing way in stress relief cir­cles for niksen, a Dutch word that “lit­er­al­ly means to do noth­ing, to be idle or doing some­thing with­out any use,” says Car­olien Ham­ming, man­ag­ing direc­tor of a Dutch destress­ing cen­ter, CSR Cen­trum.

Niksen is not doom­scrolling through social media or stream­ing whole sea­sons of shows. Niksen is inten­tion­al pur­pose­less­ness, the oppo­site of dis­trac­tion, like med­i­ta­tion but with­out the pos­tures and instruc­tions and class­es and retreats and so forth. Any­one can do it, though it might be hard­er than it looks. Got­tfried quotes Ruut Veen­hoven, soci­ol­o­gist and pro­fes­sor at Eras­mus Uni­ver­si­ty Rot­ter­dam, who says niksen can be as sim­ple as “sit­ting in a chair or look­ing out the win­dow,” just let­ting your mind wan­der. If your mind wan­ders to unset­tling places, you can try an absorb­ing, repet­i­tive task to keep it busy. “We should have moments of relax­ation, and relax­ation can be com­bined with easy, semi-auto­mat­ic activ­i­ty, such as knit­ting.”

“One aspect of the ‘art of liv­ing,’” says Veen­hoven, “is to find out what ways of relax­ing fit you best.” If you’re think­ing you might have found yours in niksen, you can get start­ed right away, even if you aren’t at home. “You can niks in a café, too,” says Olga Meck­ing—author of Niksen: Embrac­ing the Dutch Art of Doing Noth­ing—when cafes are safe to niks in. (You can also use “niks” as a verb.) It may not strict­ly be a mind­ful­ness prac­tice like the many descend­ed from Bud­dhism, but it is mind­ful­ness adja­cent, Nicole Spec­tor points out at NBC News. Niks-ing (?) can soothe burnout by giv­ing our brain time to process the mas­sive amounts of infor­ma­tion we take in every day, “which in turn can boost one’s cre­ativ­i­ty,” Got­tfried writes, by mak­ing space for new ideas. Or as Brut Amer­i­ca, pro­duc­er of the short niksen explain­er above, writes, “doing noth­ing isn’t lazy—it’s an art.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Mind­ful­ness Makes Us Hap­pi­er & Bet­ter Able to Meet Life’s Chal­lenges: Two Ani­mat­ed Primers Explain

Why You Do Your Best Think­ing In The Show­er: Cre­ativ­i­ty & the “Incu­ba­tion Peri­od”

How Infor­ma­tion Over­load Robs Us of Our Cre­ativ­i­ty: What the Sci­en­tif­ic Research Shows

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Timo Carlier says:

    Being Dutch, I can say that we are not par­tic­u­lar­ly bet­ter or worse than oth­er cul­tures at doing noth­ing. It real­ly is just a word like any oth­er, but hap­pens to have a nice ring to it. It isn’t a more impor­tant con­cept in Dutch cul­ture than say lov­ing or being irri­tat­ed.

    I could write an arti­cle about the won­der­ful Eng­lish phrase of ‘let­ting the mind wan­der’, a metaphor that show­cas­es a par­tic­u­lar qual­i­ty spe­cif­ic to Eng­lish life and cul­ture and their abil­i­ty to not think about any­thing which we can learn from.

  • Transition Labyrinth says:

    Walk­ing a labyrinth or trac­ing a fin­ger labyrinth with a fin­ger sounds like a per­fect source for giv­ing the mind some much need­ed space as men­tioned in the arti­cle. A labyrinth (unlike a maze) has only one path from the out­side of the pat­tern to the cen­ter and back out–no choic­es, no dead ends, no tricks. Since it is not a puz­zle to be fig­ured out, there is noth­ing for the ana­lyt­i­cal mind to “do” so once it real­izes that it’s ser­vices are not required it often will just sit down and be qui­et (it gets its pay­off when reach­ing the cen­ter, which it can trust is com­ing with­out its help). Espe­cial­ly for peo­ple who can’t sit and med­i­tate, or for whom oth­er activ­i­ties (like knit­ting!) would just add to the frus­tra­tion and stress, the labyrinth is a gen­tle tool for qui­et­ing the “mon­key-mind” and cen­ter­ing one­self. More labyrinths are being installed every month not just in church­es, spas, and retreat cen­ters, but also in parks, hos­pi­tals, schools and uni­ver­si­ties, pris­ons, etc. You can find var­i­ous fin­ger labyrinth pat­terns online that you can print out at home (slip them in a sheet pro­tec­tor or even lam­i­nate them to make the fin­ger slide bet­ter and ease clean­ing), or there might even be a labyrinth near you! Check out the “Labyrinth Loca­tor” online and the region­al maps at the Wellfed Spir­it site.
    Bless­ings on your path, from Tran­si­tion Labyrinth! <3

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