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  September 30, 2002

Doing Nothing

Recently I spent a week in the Muskoka lake region of Ontario. The landscape was pure Canadiana - a three-dimensional Tom Thompson painting. As I paddled the canoe past granite bluffs, twisted pine trees, and diving loons, my internal pace began to get slower and slower.

Hiking on a small island, I discovered a pine grove on a rocky ridge overlooking the lake. The sunlight filtered through the branches and the scent of pine needles filled the air. The soft whisper of the breeze and the flutter of the birds was all I could hear.

There was nothing I had to do. There was no problem I had to solve. There was no traffic, no email, no appointments, no expectations of any kind. I was feeling no discomfort, so I just lay there.

Since there was nothing to do, my thoughts became fewer and fewer. Breath passed slowly in and out. My eyes noticed whatever seemed to be interesting. My other senses did the same. Gradually there was nothing in me attempting to direct anything, and thoughts and mental images came and went like birds floating in the sky.

The span of each breath seemed long and full of sensation. "Units" of time lost their meaning. There was a sense of deep, relaxed alertness - awareness with no struggle. I stretched, drank water, or shifted attention when the urge arose.

Eventually I fell into a delicious sleep. When I awoke, the urge to move took me to other locations. Without any mental plan or expectation, every movement was an adventure that brought new, exciting sensations and vistas. Like a bear ambling through the woods, I discovered whatever was there. As the afternoon wore on, the urge to get into the canoe arose and I headed back across the lake.

Much of the week was spent within that awareness. Since this is a way of being that extends beyond the limitations of words, it is impossible to describe, let alone label. In order to indicate this experience to others, I choose to call it "doing nothing." In Chapter 48 of the Tao The Ching, the Chinese sage Lao Tzu wrote the following verse 2500 years ago -

Learning consists of adding something every day.
Practicing Tao consists of dropping something every day.
Dropping more and more
Until one reaches "doing nothing."
By doing nothing everything gets done.

People are often confused by this because they think the phrase "doing nothing" means physical inaction. In this case, however, "doing nothing" means not being attached to an expectation, or driven by conscious, mental control.

"Doing" refers to the struggle-filled act of forcing yourself to meet a goal that you create in your mind. "Doing nothing" is just being all that you are, and allowing the world and you to "happen."

"Doing" implies a lack of trust, that unless we act and stick rigorously to a plan, things will go wrong. "Doing nothing" is a state that trusts our entire organism to respond appropriately if it is allowed and supported. "Doing nothing" arises from an assurance that nature, which includes us, has an intelligence much greater than our limited thinking brain.

Skeptics say that it is impossible to live a life without goals, that "doing nothing" is a temporary state at best. "Doing nothing," however, does not negate thoughts or goals, it simply means not being attached to thoughts and goals. It means recognizing the truth - that goals are just useful thoughts, not solid reality. Thoughts and goals only become a problem when we expect them to become real, and we get disappointed and upset when they don't. During my afternoon on the island, thought images motivated my body to move towards the potential reality they represented. But many times, other options appeared before me and influenced my movement away from the original "goal."

Let me use an example. As I sat in the sun, I got the urge (and image) to go down to the water's edge and jump in. Then when I got there, I felt slightly chilled by the breeze. I hesitated, and my eyes spotted an area protected by rocks. Another urge arose and I climbed over to this other area. Protected from the breeze, the temperature felt just right for swimming, so I did. If I had been attached to the idea of jumping in at the first spot, I may have got angry that the breeze was so cool, and not bothered swimming. But because I was not attached to this idea - this particular "doing" - I could let other options present themselves. "Doing nothing" is just being in the flow of nature.

Although "doing nothing" is a familiar state for me, modern urban life often imposes the feeling of "doing," because so much thinking, planning, and scheduling is required. Holidays like the one I had are an ideal way for me to get reconnected with this natural state.

When we are abused or neglected as children, our fear-filled attempts to survive take us away from this natural state of "doing nothing." We become consumed with the struggle to get our needs met by "doing better," or "doing more" - all ideas and expectations forced upon us. We gradually forget how to just be ourselves.

By primalling, we can begin to get back "in touch" with who we - and nature - really are. When I first primalled, my state of "doing" drove me into the work, and I was a "good client." That was the easy part. It was much harder when I eventually hit the deep need, in session, to just lie there and "do nothing." It was only then that I felt the pain of how much I had struggled all my life and had never been allowed to just be me.

In those long, luscious moments last week, I remembered how essential "doing nothing" is. Now that I'm back in Guelph, I am reminded to "do nothing" every day - to just sit, breathe, walk, smell, taste, feel - to just be me. It's the best.

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