On the virtues of doing nothing

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Two eagles Artist: Bada Shanren (Zhu Da) (Chinese, 1626–1705))

When there is a problem, we always want to jump to a solution, and that usually involves doing something. We are quickly corralled into a hyperactive plan of action, and told that if we do not act we are part of the problem. And yet, very often our hasty actions just create more problems. So what to do?

Here is a novel idea: why not try doing nothing. Yes, you heard me right — doing nothing. Zilch. Don’t misunderstand me here: I’m not saying we should always do nothing. Only that doing a lot more nothing and a lot less something could be of immeasurable benefit.

Actually, the doing nothing I speak of is not about passivity — it is an art. Note: I am not talking about being idle. When I’m lazy, I’m extremely active avoiding what I need to do with all kinds of subversive activities, such as eating ice cream or thinking about what I should be doing. Being lazy requires endless ingenuity and subterfuge, which exhausts our spirit pretty quick.

When you marry the words ‘doing’ and ‘nothing’, you have a seeming paradox. But really doing nothing requires the effort of deep attention. We actually have to do a lot, to not give in to the compulsion to always act. It takes an intentional effort not to do what might seem natural and spontaneous, but which could be just unconscious, mechanical habit.

Of course, some readers will have guessed that I am speaking of meditation here — the ultimate act of non-doing — which is, paradoxically, a deep engagement with reality. As a personal example, and as a musician, I always meditate before a performance . Music is more alive if it is married to silence, and meditating in silence helps any activity be more wholehearted. Doing nothing gives us possibility of giving birth to something, which could be anything. The empty glass becomes available to be filled with the intoxicating liquors of life.

The problem is that it’s hard for us moderns to stop our addiction to doing. We are all addicts in this sense; and any addicts can attest that stopping doing their favorite ‘something’ is difficult, considering the powerful vector and habitual tendency to always ‘fill the void’. Compulsive action is always based on a certain fear of nothingness. This is the root of our compulsive, addictive behaviors. Instead of befriending that nothingness, we so often find ourselves binging on some tv series, or eating chocolate or surfing the internet.

So often our hyperactive doing creates more problems, which require more solutions ad infinitum, and we get caught in recurrent loops of bad habit. Some of our models of agriculture illustrate this point pretty well. We might create an enormous yield of crops — huge strawberries and tomatoes — but in the process end up exhausting the topsoil. Similarly, we might genetically modify plants with small stems and extra seeds, only to discover that the large stems are essential compost to enrich the soil. Our seeds then — and by analogy our creativity — gets wasted though hasty and impulsive action; we exhaust ourselves by acting too quickly and without sufficient wisdom. In cases like this, it would be better not to impose our ingenuity on nature but to simply allow nature to be what it is.

On a spiritual level, all the great traditions know that doing nothing is both worthwhile and virtuous — and is in fact essential for personal and communal hygiene. The Sabbath for Jews is very intentionally about doing nothing, and even celebrating that doing nothing. Certainly we need to celebrate things as they are already created — as much as we need to celebrate our own innovations. The problems is we don’t acknowledge that what matters most in life is not actually created by us at all: we consider creativity to be entirely our own agency, despite all evidence to the contrary. But did we create a cloud, a star, a rock?

In certain Hindu traditions there are festivals where the earth is left untouched for three or four days, mirroring a woman’s menstruation. On those days farming, or even picking of flowers, is not allowed. Instead there is a great feast celebrating the divine goddess. By not touching the goddess, symbolically speaking, the community is renewed and purified, its luster restored, its place in the universe reinstated.

(Source, Cayley, David: The Age of Ecology: http://www.davidcayley.com/podcasts/2016/6/4/age-of-ecology-part-four)


There are endless ways to do nothing that could be beneficial. One could stay home instead of going to the mall — the result might be cleaner river, a brighter sky and a mind less filled with the garbage of unattainable desires. What if we ceased being slaves to electricity for a day? Would that not be a liberation? Don’t we feel happy when we have a power failure during a lightning storm? Isn’t the night sky, without being lit up by our electricity, a balm and relief to the soul?

The ways of doing nothing are infinite in variety — take your pick! For instance, today after jogging in the rain I took of my shoes: it felt so good to have nothing between my feet and the wet pavement. It occurred to me that, living it a city, it had been too long since there was nothing between myself and the ground. This was a tiny pleasure, but a vital one, the kind of pleasure that we forget in our insistence on technologies such as shoes. I’m not against shoes or technologies, but we have become too accustomed to putting ‘something’ — a cushion — between ourselves and the world.

Today we are violently encouraged to be something or somebody — no wonder there is so much work burnout. We are so busy entertaining, being charming, philosophising, working, titillating ourselves, being personalities — we forget to rest. Even during our so-called leisure times we seem to be busy as hell, engaging in this or that developmental activity — measuring cost benefits. I propose we stop turning the complex tissues of life into numbers and abstractions more often. Let us allow, even a single breath. (It’s easy to see that modern people have forgotten how to breath naturally.)

In Taoism and Zen there is a concept of wu wei we, which means the doing of not doing. This is about becoming so deeply immersed in reality that one forgets the boundaries of oneself. Why is it so hard to be in the world without grasping at it, without trying to define it or change it, without really listening to it? Perhaps the problem is that we forget the nothingness from which all life emerges. We are so busy doing, that we forget the doing-of-not-doing.

Once we get the hang of not doing, we can notice that all the entertainment in the world doesn’t have the interest of a grasshoppers wing, or the gradations of light in the evening sky. When we stop doing, our senses open, we are free to act or not; we enter the stream of life. Especially during and after meditation, we notice an already existing world of tiny miracles.

Sometimes, while I am uselessly surfing the internet, my daughter tugs at my arm. Turning and seeing the little freckles on her bright face, I think: I need to stop for a moment and to just be with her. Isn’t all of nature just like my little daughter, tugging at us and inviting us to leave our distracted mental states and to partake in her wonders?

Let’s stop making things and doing things and just allow reality to be what it is sometimes. Do we have to number every beast of the field, dissect them for our beauty products, create more shiny and efficient slaughterhouses? Just imagine all of that shutting down, and the United Nations dedicating a day to doing nothing. Imagine a day where the factories weren’t spinning, where the office towers weren’t lit up, where people didn’t build anything or go anywhere or ‘increasing personal productivity’.

I propose a new ‘doing nothing day’ that is non-religious, but universal. A global day of voluntarily doing nothing — including war but also peace talks — taken up by all nations immediately. Hell, why not a week or a month of doing nothing? A complete moratorium on ‘doing’ would be great. For just one day, we will not try to manage people, energy, the environment, our health, our future, or anything. Let us bathe in glorious, sweet nothing.

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