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Children reading on a bench in Mexico.
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While away the hours.
FREE TO BE

The most relaxing vacation you can take is going nowhere at all

By Ephrat Livni

Vacation is exhausting when you go places. It’s often a time of awkward experiences—donning bathing suits, struggling with foreign tongues, trying to have fun where you know no one and none of the customs. That’s anything but relaxing.

The only kind of break that doesn’t require a follow-up vacation is the type you should consider in the first place—the staycation. 

To be clear, this isn’t a discussion of the British staycation, which simply means traveling to a destination in Britain. This is about the Italian concept of dolce far niente—the sweet doing nothing—with an American twist. It’s about the newish notion of staying home during a break, going nowhere, and cultivating a deeper appreciation of the place you’re already in but mostly don’t see because you’re too busy.

Remaining close to home—or just in it, hanging out—leaves you refreshed and provides perspective. And it may be the key to your next great idea.

Something from nothing

You have nothing to prove on your time off. That’s the point. Wandering through your neighborhood slowly, drinking leisurely coffees, visiting the exhibits and boutiques you always mean to see, picnicking in the parks you rarely enjoy, spending hours perusing the bookstore, listening to music, dancing in your house, hanging out with friends, having long talks or going on long runs or doing nothing at all, washes your eyes and spirit. You really luxuriate in the rare commodity of free time, rather than rushing about allegedly making the most of your liberation while actually getting stressed out.

To perpetually busy bucket-listers, Instagrammers and Snapchatters, this may seem like a waste of a valuable opportunity to get a dream done, take pictures in exotic locales, show yourself feigning relaxation while hurriedly touring and ticking sights off in your been-there-done-that book. You long to get away and make it known. But mastering the fine art of hanging out is actually the essence of cool.  

There are no rules. This is your free time. Use it to get in touch with freedom, just being, which is, admittedly, a scary thing. After all, one reason we keep busy is to avoid ourselves, the secret fear that without our work or rigid schedules we are nothing, empty vessels, floating adrift on an ocean of nothingness.

This is rooted, perhaps, in the Christian notion that idle hands are the devil’s playground. Historically, when the American middle class first began taking vacations in the mid-19th century, for example, religious resorts ensured that free time was organized and not so free that people got themselves in trouble, according to University of Virginia professor Cindy Aron, author of Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States.

Today, we get away without worrying too much about sinful temptations. To some extent, the point of escape is to have new experiences and maybe even to break the rules we follow at home. We want to be entertained and distracted by unfamiliar sights and sounds, different people, and hope that somehow we’ll discover something new about ourselves in the process.

Of course, the only problem with the idea of escape is that, famously, wherever you go, there you are. You’ll always be around on your vacation. Unless you’re truly cool with yourself then, there’s really little point in going places. You’re just staving off the inevitable moment when you’ll have to face your fundamental self.

So in some sense, the more you resist the notion of the staycation, the more likely it is you need one, from a psychological perspective. Become your own friend—learn to trust your instincts and yourself and be at peace with that one person you can never escape; you. Peer into the void—you might find it’s actually alright.

It’s also worth getting comfortable with nothingness because that’s the space of possibility, where something comes from. As the Tao Te Ching states, “If you would take from a thing, you must first give to it. This is called subtle discernment.”

Scientists, writers, artists, musicians, mystics, psychologists, and even busy businesspeople all recommend mental space, a little time to let the mind wander and alight on a new concept. This is where great ideas are born—Albert Einstein’s best ideas came to him when he was aimless, and yours can too.

“What makes a mind fertile? For one thing, it is the freedom to venture without the confines of traditional thinking or the burden of practical concerns,” writes scientist Abraham Loeb in Scientific American.

The art of hanging out

There are many ways to staycation. If you’re intent on doing new things, and just can’t let go of the notion of goals, you can do that. Make a list of all the activities you’d engage in or all the places you’d visit if you were a tourist and not a local and go there. Revel in the place you make home.

Or decide which books you must read, which movies you must see, commit to an intense athletic practice or some kind of extreme eating regime that would be inconvenient during a work week. Take up meditation. Vow not to speak. Ignore social media. Experiment with the notions that intrigue you but you can’t get around to normally, like doing nothing, for example.

There are endless options, given the money you’re not spending on lodging elsewhere. Your staycation can be comprised of local luxuries—fine dining in fancy outfits, going to plays, shopping. It can be rigorously planned or unfold slowly, like a mystery. Although it’s a bizarre notion for some of us, it really is possible to make no plans and revel in no schedule.

As for concerns that you might end up doing chores during your time off, don’t worry. Chances are good that you can’t actually do endless loads of laundry. And if you find yourself scrubbing the floors or clearing out closets, perhaps that’s not so bad. First, cleaning is a spiritual practice that improves mental health. In the words of the Japanese Zen Buddhist Monk Shoukei Matsumoto:

We sweep dust to remove our worldly desires. We scrub dirt to free ourselves of attachments. We live simply and take time to contemplate the self, mindfully living each moment. It’s not just monks who need to live this way. Everyone in today’s busy world needs to do it.

By doing what needs to be done at home, you’re engaging deeply with your existence, which demands you handle practical matters and not just be distracted. What better way to get a handle on your life than by taking some time to organize your base of operations and make it a more beautiful place you don’t want to escape?

Leisure time is meant to be spent in a relaxed fashion, not harried. That’s not to say you should never go anywhere—definitely do study or work abroad, quit your job and find a gig on a yacht that sails the high seas, adventure. Just don’t squeeze those things in to a tiny amount of time you’re meant to spend relaxing and unwinding.

The key to a successful staycation, whatever you’re doing, is to just be. That’s not easy for people working in cultures intent on busyness. Yet it is a way we can reduce stress levels and return to work with more energy. “We shouldn’t associate relaxation with being away,” advises Quartz’s managing editor Kira Bindrim, who describes herself as an avid staycation advocate. “Reclaim the place you already chose to live!”