#98. The art of doing nothing: a Zen perspective.29FEB16

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years and 4 months in jail.

A journalist asked him: “How did you survive breaking rocks and doing nothing?”

He replies: “ It depends what doing nothing means. Doing nothing is doing something”

By the way, Nelson Mandela was an avid reader of with Zen literature.

When someone is asking you “How are you?” Most of our replies ends up with the word: “Busy.”

Can you imagine responding: “Not too bad. Nothing to do, not busy”. How will this reply be perceived? People will probably say: “What’s wrong?” “How do you manage, are you sick, retired?”

To keep ourselves busy, to feel busy or to project being busy is part of our ego self-image and social profile. We don’t want to be perceived by self and others as useless, inactive or lazy. We want to be productive. Doing nothing is simply not acceptable and ill perceived by self and by the society.

We are running like a hamster in its wheel.

From the time we wake up to the time we fall asleep we are running around like a hamster in its wheel. Our body is busy doing something non-stop and our mind is wandering continuously: thoughts, worries, anger, planning, expectations, memories, analysis, judgment, etc. We are complaining that we don’t have time but we automatically accumulate or create things to do all day long. Not only we are busy at doing one thing but also now we must be “multi-taskers”. We have to do zillion of things at the same time because we do not have enough time or believe that we don’t have it. We don’t have the mental skills nor the courage for doing nothing because doing nothing goes against our ego. Even when we have a rare free moment we rush to do something: surfing, texting, emailing, reading a book, working in the kitchen, in the garden, etc. We are “alcoholic doers” and if we do not do something we feel like being on standstill, frozen in a huge vacuum, sort of emptiness or failure. Subconsciously we feel guilty, lazy and useless of doing nothing. A pure ego reaction.

This is crazy and detrimental to our emotional balance.

What “doing nothing” means?

As far as Zen teaching, doing nothing does not mean anything and should not carry any negative meaning. Doing noting is a weird concept, a contradiction of terms like plus and minus. Actually “doing nothing” is a delusion. It does not exist since doing nothing is in fact doing something that is perceived by our ego-mind as meaningless or useless. Doing nothing and doing something are identical, only the way we perceive and understand the words create this artificial difference. It is up to us to choose the proper meaning. Maybe doing nothing is doing something outside the mandatory duties and outside the routine, without any specific goals.

Does just breathing doing nothing?

How can I do nothing?

Doing nothing is very easy or very demanding depending on how you define it and on what you do! If you believe that you are too important or indispensible then “Doing nothing” is impossible, a failure. Doing nothing is not meditation since meditation is doing something that is controlling your body and mind. If you decide to stop doing your routine from few minutes to one hour and read a book for example are you doing nothing? Maybe yes, maybe no depending on how you perceive your action. Maybe it is just to stay still, to let the mind wandering, to enjoy the feeling of relaxing or not be caught in the frenzy of the day. If you stop moving and contemplate the clouds for few minutes are you doing nothing? Maybe yes. Maybe not. At the cottage does drinking beer, cooking on the BBQ and chasing bugs doing nothing? Yes if compared with the hectic life of a working week, no because you do something. It is up to each individual to decide what doing nothing means based on our self-image, life schedule, incoming priorities and commitments.

Is the practice of “Doing nothing” beneficial?

Zen is teaching us not to get caught with the negative perception of doing nothing and to do nothing once a while during the day. What is important is to change our negative perception of doing nothing to a positive one and to appreciate this relaxing moment without labeling it as a waste of time or laziness. Stopping all activities for few minutes including maintaining a still body and being mindful to our environment using our 5 senses is a wonderful perception of “relaxing by doing nothing”. Its sounds similar to meditation but, again, it is not genuine meditation since you let your mind wandering. Maybe having our mind wandering is not really “doing nothing” since our mind is busy.

Is “Doing nothing” a luxury?

Therapy is not a luxury. Finding time to do nothing is a great way to realize that we are not indispensible each hour of the day. This is also a nice way to tame our ego-mind that is telling us that “doing nothing is not for us.”

Thanks.   Ven. Ji Gong Sunim 29Feb16