Last revised on April 26, 2021
Is it possible to do nothing?
My step-daughter once asked, “How can you not do nothing? My aunt tells me to stop sitting and doing nothing. Well, if I am sitting, I am doing something! I am sitting and that’s doing something!”
Point well taken!
Moment after moment we engage in some activity or another. Sitting idle is discouraged in our culture. We’re told that idle mind is devil’s workshop and for a good reason. It’s common knowledge that most people who get in trouble don’t have regular jobs nor engage in meaningful activities. So it makes sense.
However, when is it enough? When can we stop? Is it okay to do that? To disengage, withdraw from all activities and just take a breath? The problem is even if we’re allowed to not do anything, our mind does not want to stop! It does NOT know how to stop. It has to be trained to do that.
We engage in activities with a combination of physical, vocal, and mental involvement. We’re constantly active even when asleep. The part of our mind that’s called “unconscious” is always awake and alert. It consistently monitors sensations in our body and makes decisions to favor our preservation. That’s why we can swat a mosquito in our sleep without having any recollection of it afterward.
There’s a secret to not doing anything. That key is in observation. When we step aside and observe something, we’re not engaging. Which means we’re not doing anything – well, except observing.
Objectively observing phenomena
There’s true beauty in merely observing a phenomenon unfolding. You could be sitting on your porch and observing traffic. Or observing your children play from your window. Or watch fish swim about in a fish tank. Or lay on the grass and watch clouds go by in the sky. It is beautiful, it’s relaxing, it’s rejuvenating to stay out of the dance of existence.
But are you truly staying out of the chaos? Or are you just stepped aside while still engaged as your thoughts continue rolling in the background? You’ve just managed to push everything away temporarily but are still engaging with it all – even if to a lesser extent.
Besides, why observe the noise outside of you when there so much of it inside? So some people take a step further. To mitigate this inner noise, they meditate on various objects. Some gaze at the flame of a candle. Others focus on mantras or words chanted repeatedly to create certain vibrations that diffuse through their immediate environment. Yet others visualize something or someone and observe that visual.
In all cases though one is generating something to then observe. Again, why create noise when there’s already so much unrest inside? Especially when, it may offer an escape from your noisy world but then place you in a different realm with a different kind of commotion.
The practice of mindfulness teaches you to develop resilience to the crazy world rather than escape it. And that occurs when you learn to objectively observe the inner noise.
The training begins with observing your breath. It’s neutral. It’s natural, not generated. It’s always there with you for as long as you are alive. It’s the most effective tool to fully concentrate your mind. To make it so focused that you can perceive subtle realities that you were hitherto unaware of in your waking life.
You may start feeling sensations in the body that you didn’t notice before. How many times you notice you’re itchy before you scratch, for example? Likely none. Now, you’ll notice the itch but instead of scratching, you’ll allow it to be. You’ll feel it rise, hit a crest, then slowly dissipate. That will allow you to realize the impermanence of that phenomenon.
You may start recalling past experiences, even the negative ones – the kind you didn’t want to feel and so had pushed them down deep so you don’t have to deal with them ever again. That’s where the practice of mindfulness really shines. In giving you the opportunity to replay an experience and allowing it to pass, clearing the traumas along with it.
As with your regular physical sensations like itching, you notice there are sensations associated with emotions too. As past experiences surface in your mind, they bring with them emotions which, in turn, cause various sensations in the body. Heat follows anger, for example. Fear may invoke airy feeling somewhere. Happiness may bring warmth. Some sort of vibration may accompany a joyous memory and so forth. At any rate, with any sensation, you remain unplugged. You just observe.
This is not an exercise in futility. You’re literally rewiring your brain sitting on that meditation cushion. You’re blunting your reactions. Neurologically speaking, you’re training your mind to process events at the higher brain centers – the gray matter responsible for sophisticated analysis – rather than the reactive amygdala circuit.
How the practice makes you perfect
As you train your mind more and more through this practice, your interactions with the outside world begin to change. They become more neutral and less judgmental. Your work relationships develop into meaningful alliances and personal ones transform from co-dependent to cordial partnerships. You’re no longer on the fence – there’s no clutter in the mind to skew your decision-making abilities. You make accurate decisions quick. Most importantly, you drop your past burdens and emerge as a more compassionate and peaceful person.
When describing my spiritual path to an Amish-Menonite airbnb host, I told her how I strive to improve myself and be a better person every day. She said, “It sounds a lot like sanctification”. Yes, there’s a word for it in every tradition.
We’re encouraged by every religious and spiritual tradition to self-improve, to become purer and purer so we can inspire others by example and guide them toward a healthier community. The practice of mindfulness is a tool for just that.
Learning traditional mindfulness practice
Vipassana meditation is regarded as the authentic practice of mindfulness being taught in the East for over 2500 years. It comes from a Buddhist tradition which allows anyone with any religious or spiritual background to learn the technique. For more information or to register for a retreat, please visit dhamma.org. All fees are paid for by old students who found the training beneficial enough to sponsor it for others. Students are allowed to donate after completion of the retreat.