Do nothing is a way to meditate that involves very little and eventually no effort at all.
This method has been discovered and rediscovered many times, in many places and in many different traditions.
Dear child has many names:
- open presence (concept from brain science)
- passive contemplation (Christianity, for example Meister Eckhart)
- muraqaba (Muslim Sufism)
- just sit / shikantaza (Japanese zen, for example with Dōgen Zenjj and Shunryu Suzuki)
- dzogchen / mahamudra (Tibetan Buddhism)
- non-dualistic consciousness (Indian advaita vedanta and classical Hindu tantra)
- spontaneous presence / effortless awareness / choiceless awareness (Jiddu Krishnamurti and others)
This is a paradoxical technique, because one deliberately does not do any technique.
Nothing, nada, zero..
The intention is literally to do nothing.
That means that you are not trying to be mindful in any way.
You also do not try to notice restful states or the fact that you do nothing. That is why we also call it Absolute rest . This is in contrast to the relative rest in Focus on rest , where one actively uses one’s attentional skills.
The absolute rest seeks instead total passivity and effortlessness. Not because passivity in everyday life is a goal in itself, but because passivity and nothingness are a part of us, of the universe and existence itself.
An important reason why this non-technique has become so central in many traditions is that it cultivates equanimity on a deep level. This deep equanimity allows concentration and sensory clarity to emerge naturally and completely effortlessly by themselves.
Here are the two simple instructions for Doing Nothing:
- Do nothing. Just let what happens happen.
- If you notice an intention to want to control your attention, let go of that intention.
To clarify: you only let go of the intention to want to control the attention, but not what the attention has landed on. This means that you may think a lot, become completely inattentive, dream, fantasize, etc. That is completely OK. Just let it happen.
For someone who is a spiritual seeker, this is a technique where one completely lets go of any searching. One stops looking, stops longing, stops trying, stops doing anything.
It is a radical shift from doing-mode and having-mode to being-mode.
Some guidelines for practicing Do nothing
- If you have an intention to stay focused, let go of that intention
- If you have an intention to meditate, let go of that intention
- If you have an intention to stay in a good condition or fix a bad one, let go of that intention
- If you have an intention to be concentrated, or be clear or have equanimity let go of that intention
- If you notice that you get more equanimity – good. If you notice that you are trying to gain more equanimity or keep it the same, let go of that intention
- If you notice that you become more concentrated – good. If you notice that you are trying to get more concentrated or keep it the same, let go of that intention
- If you notice that you get more sensory clarity – good. If you notice that you are trying to get more sensory clarity or keep it the same, let go of that intention
- If you have no intention of controlling your attention – well, just let it happen as long or short as it happens
- If you get confused or dizzy, let go of the intention to do something about it
- If you get an intention to understand what is happening, let go of that intention
- If you can’t let go of an intention, that’s fine too
- Remember that letting go of something means that you seek to be completely effortless and passive. If you have to make an effort to get hold of something, you do not have to let go of it. Let go of the intention to let go of it.
- There is one exception: You can have the intention of maintaining a good meditation position.
Good reasons to Do nothing
- This is a very useful technique for giving the mind and body deep rest
- Because it strengthens equanimity on a deep level, it is also a good method to use as a contrast to a more active technique for going deeper and wider.
- Because you let go of any intention, you also let go of the self. Therefore, this is a shortcut to a deep experience of the non-self / the true self / source, etc.
- Because you let go of any intention, the self tends to lose its grip and thereby you also remove the charge which creates suffering. To Do nothing is a radical exercise in non-resistance. Read more about what this means in the blog post about the pain formula .
- Do nothing is a meditation that mirrors how death also is a part of life. Not just as the end point of life, but as a counterpoint throughout life.
Paradoxes within paradoxes
Although this is called the immediate path because one “only” lets go of everything, it can be a meditation path with a long maturation process.
Many who have just started meditating express great satisfaction at Do nothing . Unfortunately, many of us feel that we have to do something to be allowed to feel good. So here’s a welcome way to get in touch with simply being, and not having to struggle or fight.
At the same time, this can also be a frustrating technique. If the mind just races on from one circus to the next, it can all feel quite unfruitful. That explains why it is quite common in many traditions that you only start practicing this after a bit of experience.
In zen, one often sits for years and just meditates on the breath before embarking on this practice. And in Tibetan Buddhism, one goes through a long series of introductory exercises first, often over many years. But in both of these traditions, Do nothing crowns it all.
So feel free to include Do nothing in your practice, even if you are a beginner. But I do recommend doing it in very short sessions in the beginning. Maybe just a few seconds at a time, but several times during a full meditation session. If you notice that it gives you something. even if you can’t put your finger on what, see if you can let go for a longer time period.
Instructions from Buddhism, advaita vedanta and Christianity
To show the breadth and depth of this meditation path, here are some quotes from four great contemplative traditions.
Many of the quotes use a sacred or mysterious language that may seem high-flying, unreal or incomprehensible. Others point to experiences that may seem completely unattainable.
So before I leave the word to these giants, I just want to remind you of the rule of thumb on this meditation path:
Do not try to achieve anything.
Mahamudra / Tibetan Buddhism
When you rest loosely in this way, if the mind is unstable and has strong thoughts, it means that you are not free from the desire to meditate. Therefore, free yourself from any sense of purpose. Whether your mind is quiet or not, do not stop or create anything.
A fast mountain river is made clean by flowing.
A silver mirror becomes clear when polished.
A yogi’s meditation becomes blessed through being destroyed.
Meditate in a large number of short sessions.
When the sessions are short, no mistakes can occur.
When they are many, the errors cannot continue.
Be at rest before a thought arises, before the very desire to create a thought
Emptiness and light are not two separate things, but rather the nature of emptiness light, and the nature of light is emptiness. This indivisible unity of emptiness and light, is the naked mind, free from all things, living in an uncreated state.
Zen / Japanese Buddhism
Let go of all relationships and put all chores aside. To be good is non-thinking; to be evil is non-thinking. Zazen has nothing to do with the intellect, the will or the consciousness, nor with memory, imagination or contemplation. Do not seek to become a Buddha. Free yourself from the difference between sitting and lying down.
Zazen is not learning (step-by-step) meditation. Instead, zazen is the very gate of dharma that provides great peace and joy (nirvana). It is both the practice and the realization of totally culminated enlightenment.
(1200 – 1253)
My comment: For Dōgen, meditating (zazen , literally “sit and meditate”) is the same as doing nothing (Japanese: shikantaza , literally “just sitting”)
The same goes for Suzuki (below) from the same tradition within zen.
Shikantaza is to practice or actualize emptiness. Although you may have some kind of understanding of emptiness through your mind, you can only understand it through experiencing it. You have an idea of emptiness and an idea of being, and you think that being and emptiness are opposites. But in Buddhism both are ideas of being. The emptiness we mean is not like the idea you may have. You cannot achieve a full understanding of emptiness with the thinking mind or with your emotions. That’s why we practice zazen .
(1904 – 1971)
Advaita vedanta / hinduism
There is neither creation nor destruction; neither destiny nor free will, neither way nor achievement. This is the ultimate truth.
All that is required to realize the essence of the Self is “to be quiet.”
(1879 – 1950)
Love says “I am everything.” Wisdom says, “I am nothing.” Between these two my life flows.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
(1897 – 1981)
The most powerful prayer, one so close to the Almighty, and the most worthy work of all, is that which comes from a quiet mind. The calmer it is, the more powerful, the more dignified, the deeper, the more eloquent and more perfect the prayer. For the quiet mind, all things are possible. What is a quiet mind? A quiet mind is a mind that weighs nothing, cares nothing, that, free from bondage and from all self-seeking, is united to the will of God and is dead to its own.
(1260 – 1328)