The importance of Müßiggang

As the long Easter weekend comes to an end and everyone is heading back into their routines it might be time to talk about one of my favourite past-times: Müßiggang, slowing down or just doing nothing. This sounds less important than it is. Doing nothing gives us time to think. Maybe even making life-altering decisions.

I recently blogged about my tech-freedom at various times and places. Müßiggang is part of this freedom – a freedom to be by myself, with my thoughts and worries.


Let me start with a little German lesson. Müßiggang, a German noun, means idleness or slowing down or even being lazy. I don’t think however that the translation does the word justice. Müßiggang is more than just being idle or even being lazy. It’s a state of mind and often a movement at the same time (the second part of the word ‘gang’ means ‘walk’). The noun refers to an act of letting thoughts run free while maybe being out in nature or doing something routinely.

A number of German poets have written and practised Müßiggang. Müßiggang was an activity to let go of every day worries and just to be present in what they were doing. Müßiggang often involved walking. It wasn’t walking with a goal in mind or walking as in rushing to get somewhere, it was walking as part of a natural way of transport. It’s this kind of activity that is part of Müßiggang.


In today’s world this act of moving without purpose and letting go of every day struggles is often referred to mindfulness. I understand mindfulness as an act of being present in the moment. Müßiggang I see as a form of movement, while being present in the moment. There is no right or wrong definition of either of those terms but let me stick with Müßiggang, a moving mindful practice.

In today’s rushed world Müßiggang seems to be lost and often impossible to find again. Müßiggang takes time, a lot of time. Goethe, a German poet, walked for days and weeks. Hands up who has time for that on a regular basis!

Constant contactability – another reason why Müßiggang is next to impossible in today’s world.

There are experiments to overcome this constant need to be reachable and to live with the fear of missing out. I’m currently reading a book by Esther Emery who took the ‘challenge’ of being offline for a year. Over Easter we went camping for five days – without cell phone reception.

It’s up to the individual to create these opportunities and to see them through.

Müßiggang can be done

Working on something like mindfulness or even Müßiggang requires a lot of effort. I imagine myself planning a week long hike somewhere without cellphone reception – I would be planning for longer than actually doing the hike. And then, the expected requirement that at the end of the week I need to be all rejuvenated, full of ideas and action – that is stressful.

I believe Müßiggang doesn’t have to be as extensive as Goethe used to do it. Müßiggang can be done through a 30 minute walk through the forest or by the beach without distraction. I used to ride my bike through a forest regularly  and I had time to think things over.

Müßiggang can be as simple as not checking the phone while waiting somewhere or for someone. By avoiding constant distraction you have time to think. It provides the opportunity to work things out and maybe come up with solutions for problems.

Müßiggang is also possible during the most mundane of tasks. Maybe you’ve experienced that your most insightful thoughts come under the shower or while brushing teeth. It’s those time of repetitive actions where our mind can wonder. If we find time to extend this period of moving and thinking to other times of the day, we’re half way to where Goethe was. And who knows, maybe a piece of world literature is being created in those minutes.

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