How to “Do” Nothing

One of the most remarkable things I’ve found is the tremendous insight that comes from doing nothing. That sounds strange, and it is. But I think there is truth in it.

One of the most remarkable things I’ve found is the tremendous insight that comes from doing nothing. That sounds strange, and it is. But I think there is truth in it.

How could we have insights from doing nothing? I think it is a matter of getting out of our own way. Our mind is constantly chattering, going this way and that way, thinking it knows best, that it’s in charge of things. If we can stop for a moment, marvelous things start to happen. But we can’t stop it intentionally. The mind can’t stop the mind; the ego can’t stop the ego. This is why it can seem so hard.

The ironic and paradoxical question becomes: how do I do nothing? If we are thinking that way, that I have to “do” something to do nothing, then I think we might fail. For in trying to do nothing, we are doing. No. We just stop. We allow ourselves to stop. I think this is where true meditation and contemplation become so powerful. It is not that we are trying to meditate, trying hard to concentrate, to focus, to keep attention on the breath, and block out all thoughts. If we do that, I think we may not see many benefits. The ego is trying to “do” meditation. It is much more that we allow our minds to relax, to soften, to fall away to quietude and silence. It is more of an allowing than a trying, a surrendering rather than a mission or goal that we must intentionally fulfill.

I think this is why in some schools of Zen they say that you can’t “do” anything to meditate or to become enlightened, which sounds completely silly to most people. If I can’t do anything to meditate or find enlightenment, then I guess I’ll go on my way. Nothing here to “do.” I think the Christian idea of grace comes into play here in a very similar way. We can’t “work” our way to heaven; it comes as a gift, unbidden, undesired, unworked towards. But then other Christians come along and complain, “well if I can’t do anything then, then what do I ‘do’ to find God?” Again, it is a paradox. We are always looking to do, to learn the truth, to find God. I think the trick might be to stop doing, stop trying, to surrender the crusade, and allow God to find us.

I think meditation, contemplation, silent prayer, is not something that we “do,” per se. It is something that we undo. We stop doing. It is an attitude of being, in allowing, in becoming open, in relaxing the mind, in surrendering to the present moment, becoming aware of what is, to the current reality of what is and nothing more. Some call this mindfulness. When we notice the mind wander off into mundane thoughts, we simply and gently acknowledge that this has happened, and we bring our awareness back to the breath. And we repeat this, until the mind becomes very relaxed, gentle, soft, clear, clean. This, I think, is what the scriptures are referring to when they speak of purification and sanctification. It is a purifying of our mind, cleansing the mind of all the thoughts that normally clog it up. When we can so purify our mind, then we can see and witness our spirit, our soul, the life-giving essence that is our basic being. It is putting off the natural man, and seeing the Saint that we are (Mosiah 3:19).

Again, this is when remarkable ineffable things start to happen. Insights begin to appear in the mind of their own accord, not necessarily as thoughts, but as understandings, as knowings. We weren’t looking for them. We weren’t trying to “think” them, or find them in our mind somewhere. We weren’t “creating” them by organizing thoughts in novel or unique ways. They simply enter into consciousness. This is the definition of insight, epiphany, revelation, the whisperings of the spirit, the parousia, illumination, enlightenment, awakening, realization, discovery. It is unbidden. It comes from deeper subconscious or unconscious realms of the mind that we do not have conscious access to, what we might call the spiritual dimension, bubbling up into consciousness when consciousness is not preoccupied with a host of other thoughts to attend to. When consciousness is open and clear, it is a wonder what begins to appear there, the ideas and experiences that one begins to have. When we become silent, God can speak to us. What we really are at the most fundamental level of our existence suddenly and shockingly has a Voice, and it stuns us. We see the image of God engraved on our very own countenance, and this is perhaps the most astonishing thing we have ever witnessed in our lives (Alma 5:14, 19).

And not only insights, but deeply felt emotions, Gratitude, Peace, and Joy spring up from inside us. A tremendous sense of Love that fills the body to the brim, that runs from head to toes and back again. A feeling of energy and warmth and Light and Goodness that fills the entire body, that kisses our Spirit and Soul, and tears well up in our eyes from the immensity of this Simplicity, this Reality, this Amazing Grace, this marvelous ease of Life and Spirit that we feel gushing up inside of us. God touches our heart, and we are without words.

We don’t seek for it. We simply become still, and it finds us. It just appears. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

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7 thoughts on “How to “Do” Nothing

  1. Hi Bryce – just arrived here from the link you gave on Facebook. Wonderful, wonderful column – it’s the kind of thing I wish I heard more of when I started meditating many years ago. Many people who work themselves up into knots meditating could learn a great deal from this. But then again, I DID hear a lot and I don’t think I really believed it, so I guess one has to learn from experience, eh?

  2. Hi Bryce,
    I see you had previously eloquently expanded on my recent comment that ‘Nothing is as important as Nothing’.

    If we are to grow unhindered and uninfluenced by our own or ‘external’ forces into something greater than we are then we require ‘nothing’ in which to freely allow the process of our evolving (or unifying) to expand into. If we look with our mortal eyes at our self we generally only see a solid, dense, irregular-shaped mass and our mind identifies itself as being that solid fixed object, but if we were to shrink our vision down to the atomic level that ‘solid mass’ would be revealed for what it actually is – at least in the physical world – a region of almost totally empty space containing an almost invisible quantity of actual mass particles separated from one another by ‘clouds’ of many times smaller electrons, which themselves may only exist in a form of waves in a quantum force field rather than as particles.

    The saying ‘you can’t see the wood for the trees’ is a useful one for comparison, for while we may look at something and ‘see’ only one aspect that we identify, the tree(s), and fail to see that each tree is a part of a much larger aspect called a wood, we probably would also fail to see all the ‘space’ that additionally contains the smaller plants, birds, insects that are also a part of what we are seeing with our eyes while not appreciating fully all that is, or is not, there in front of us.

    By letting ‘go’ of our normal mental occupation which is filled with the day to day minutiae of the issues involved in existing in today’s society, or of fantasies of imaginary futures or concern over our no longer existing past actions, and just being present in the nothingness that we are all part of we can come to a freer understanding of our true natures and become aware of the infinite permeating presence of the One God.

    If we can be still and silent enough, often and long enough, we may even get to be at-one-d to Him.

    1. Yes. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I would add that if we can be still and silent long enough, then we can realize we are already One with “Him.”

  3. I agree that that is the true case for ‘all’ of us, being at one with the Creator. The issue being that our individual ego identity’s generally tend to take a different perspective on that Truth… and thereby all human problems ensue.

    I suppose the use of the term ‘we’ implies that it is our individual ego’s which are doing the communicating or responding to another’s ideas/thoughts rather than the One which resides at our core?

    I need to practice my awareness of this false perspective until it becomes my ‘norm’.
    (The awareness being the norm, not the false perspective, i mean! 😉 )

    1. Yes, the ego veils the Truth from our awareness, such that we think we are a separate independent being.

      I think we can use the word “we” both too refer to our ego (the “we” that thinks it is separate, as I said above,) and to refer to the One within us all (“we” are One). It just depends on how “we” use the term.

  4. Agreed.

    My English ancestry brings to mind the use of the ‘Royal’ we where the we is decidedly singular as in Queen Victoria’s oft quoted phrase: “We are not amused.” In that case though i suspect she was not using the word in the ‘we are all as one’ sense!

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