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Are you getting your otium?

country lane in Sardinia blocked by sheep

Self exploration, creativity, and contemplation in nature

Here in Sardinia they joke that there are more sheep than people. And, some days it seems quite true. There is a long tradition here of shepherding, particularly in the hilly centre of the island known as the province of Barbagia. Shepherds would leave home in the early hours with a little sack of bread, bacon or sausage, pecorino cheese, and a flask of wine and spend the day roaming the hills following the sheep. Often in the afternoons there was little to do but lie under an olive tree and contemplate the sky, observe an insect, examine a blade of grass. Pure, simple idleness. Why am I telling you this?

Well, this particular region of Sardinia is known as a Blue Zone and interestingly it has the highest percentage of male centenarians in the world! Could the secret to longevity lie in lying around? Blue Zone secrets include diet of course, simple local seasonal fare and especially beans. Natural movement also features and steep hill walking is considered one of the best forms of this. There are others including community, purpose, sleep, but time in nature is also key. Humans need time in nature to rest the mind, recharge. Time for leisure and idleness is essential for wellness, for physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Chatting with a friend the other day, a friend who left a stressful corporate career to embark on a new life as a writer, and he confessed to feeling a bit guilty about days when he wasn’t so productive, idle days where he didn’t get much writing done. Turns out he wasn’t completely idle but actually taking walks in nature, trips to a nearby botanical garden. He was in fact recharging his batteries and his quiet contemplation in nature was providing inspiration and getting his creative juices flowing. Reminded me of the notion of otium.

As this thought-provoking article from The Guggenheim explains,

The Romans had a concept called otium, which described a contemplative way of life in the countryside. Its opposite was negotium, which referred to negotiation, business, and the conditions of city life.

Turns out, according to the article, the Chinese have a similar concept called xiaoyao (xiāoyáo). There’s another great article here on the benefits of taking a break and alternating otium and negotium.

We all know the restorative and healing benefits of a walk in nature but what if we take it a little further and look to nature as a coach. It’s an idea that really resonated with me and I’ve been incorporating ‘coaching in nature’ into my coaching practice and building retreats around it. A more structured, or intentional?, form of ‘otium’ perhaps. In private and group coaching sessions we explore what lessons nature has to share with us? What does it tell us about ourselves? Connection with and reflections on nature help us better connect with ourselves, ground us, and can help us to redefine our purpose. We need time lying under trees and gazing quietly on distant horizons. It’s a beautiful thing.

This is not a new concept of course and not just for the old Romans and ancient Chinese. German writers and poets of the 18th century literary renaissance knew this and wrote much about nature and the human spirit, the harmony of the inside and outside. One of my favourite quotes from Goethe is this:

In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.


I studied Goethe for many years, even visited his house in Weimar when the wall came down. The landscape where he took his daily walks is still beautiful and deeply inspiring. Today, in the culture of busyness, it seems there is less time and space for otium. We have lost our way somewhat and connection with nature is becoming more and more elusive. Time for a new renaissance and a meaningful return to nature.

Just to mix my metaphors a bit, shifting from sheep to fish, have you heard the story of the fisherman? So, Joe had returned from his early morning fishing and was relaxing under the palms in his hammock when this tourist, Frank, stopped by and started to chat with him. Frank was a corporate suit and tie kind of chap taking his annual two week beach holiday. He started asking Joe about his life and fishing. After some discussion, Frank’s eyes lit up and he said to Joe, “Why don’t you grow your fleet, invest in new boats and nets, and make more of a profit. You can get into distribution with frozen fish and make a bundle of money.” Joe looked at him, perplexed, and said, “Why would I do that?” Frank replied confidently, excitedly, “To have a better life!” To which Joe smiled slowly and replied, “How much better can it get? I work enough to provide what I and my family need, have plenty of time to relax on a beautiful beach and hang out with friends every day. What more do I need?” Well, you know what I’m saying…

It’s all about priorities and balance, isn’t it? Life is about choices. Be productive, follow your purpose but choose to make time for recharging your batteries, time for idleness, time in blue and green spaces for self-exploration, creativity, and contemplation. It may seem like wasting time but it is actually one of the most productive things we can do for ourselves. Look at it like time to digest after a meal. Processing time. Make otium part of your self-care journey! Even little things like a walk to the park on your lunch break can add a dash of otium to your day. Your mind, body, and spirit will thank you for it.

Welcome your thoughts on this so please do leave a comment below.

Take care of you!

F ox

NB If you need some proper otium, I’m running a coaching in nature retreat in the Blue Zone of Sardinia this October with more planned for 2024. You can find out more and book your place here. Get in touch if you have any questions!

I also have a free Self-care Guide available which draws on Blue Zone principles. You can download it here.

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