What Does It Mean to Do Nothing?

Basho - What Does It Mean to Do Nothing?

We live in a world where a common rebuke is “Don’t just sit there, do something” – so it is no surprise to discover that doing nothing is regarded as kind of weird.

As we have explained in answer to the question, “Why Are We Rushing toward Oblivion,” we humans are all very very busy! And if by chance we are left with the smallest gap between one busyness and another busyness, we anxiously fill it with something… a quick check of our smartphone… anything, but something!

Just how unpopular doing nothing is can be seen from a 2014 study described in Science where they found that 67% of men and 25% of women preferred to give themselves electric shocks rather than just sit and do nothing!

And as Matthew Killingsworth, a psychologist at the University of California (UC), San Francisco, explains from his own research:

“When people are spending time inside their heads, they’re markedly less happy.”

This is interesting. Those of us conditioned by the modern, Western, scientific paradigm “hate to be alone with ourselves” doing nothing as the author of the Science article put it. Meanwhile, for the last few millennia, the non-Western paradigm has been extolling the relaxation, bliss, and sense of fulfillment from simply “doing nothing.”

As the Zen Mystic Basho explains:

Sitting silently,
Doing nothing.
The spring comes,
And the grass grows by itself.

What is the difference between the Western and non-Western understanding of “doing nothing”? – apart from the fact that with the former, people are unhappy and with the latter, they are blissful.

The first difference is the issue of being silent, “sitting silently” as Basho puts it.

In the study mentioned above, the participants are “being left alone with their minds.” The researchers were interested to know if the participants’ responses depended on what they were thinking about. Basho would laugh and say this is absurd. The real study is what happens when they are not thinking. In fact, this was already suggested by Killingsworth who found that people were equally unhappy when they were “inside their heads” whether they were experiencing a daydream or day nightmare.

Basho would also say that thinking is still “doing,” so this is not “non-doing” at all.

Osho explains it this way:

“So mind is just an activity. So really better to call it ‘minding’ than mind. It’s a process, just like walking. Walking is a process. If you stop, there’s no walking. You cannot say now the walker is sitting. There is no walking. If you stop, there is no walking. The walking has stopped. You have legs but no walking. Legs can walk, but if you stop then legs will be there but there will be no walking.

“Consciousness is like legs. Your nature. Mind is like walking, just a process….

“If you stop the movement, there is no mind. You are conscious, but there is no mind. You have legs, but no walking. Walking is a function, an activity; mind is also a function, an activity.” 1

Basho will confirm that this “no-mind” is the essence of Zen, exactly what he is referring to in that Haiku. As Osho explains:

Meditation is a state of no-mind. Meditation is the interval when there are no thoughts floating in you, when the clouds of thoughts have disappeared.

“You are without thoughts, but not asleep. You are without thoughts, yet alert. An alert thoughtlessness is meditation.” 2

So, the first major difference between the Western and non-Western understanding of doing nothing is the silence, the lack of internal verbalization.

The second major difference between the Western and non-Western “non-doing,” as Basho describes it, is that “the grass grows by itself.”

Meaning what exactly?

Meaning that you cannot make the grass grow. You can water it, protect it, take care of it, but you can’t “make” it grow, you cannot “do” the growing! In the same way, you can’t “do” no-mind – It happens “by itself.” Which makes sense. How could we “do” non-doing?

So, from the perspective of Western conditioning, I am completely lost. If I want to experience meditation but I cannot do it, then what?

Healing through Meditation

Welcome to the world of “allowing,” rather than “doing” – to a world of phenomena like how “the grass grows by itself.”

It turns out that we already know more about this than we realize. For example, how do you “do” sleep? You don’t. You cannot. You can only allow sleep, you cannot “do” it. And what about relaxation? It is the same. No one can “do” relaxation, you can only allow it. In fact, the harder you “try” to sleep or relax, the further they slip away.

Can you “do” love? Doesn’t it also just happen?

As Osho describes it:

“Love is a very delicate phenomenon, it is just like the wind. A cool breeze comes in and passes through the other door; you cannot catch hold of it, but you can enjoy it. And if you try to catch hold of it you miss the moment of enjoyment. In a closed fist there is no wind, if you want to enjoy, keep the fist open.” 3

Osho also explains how this is true of many things in life:

“And what is true about love is true about many things: laughter, joy, silence, bliss.

“All the great things of life are like a breeze. The problem arises because we start clinging to them. We say, ‘I would like to have it forever.’ We start becoming possessive, and to become possessive is to destroy all the beauty.

“You cannot hold the breeze in your hands, you cannot have it in your fist. There is no way to hold it. When it comes, dance like a tree; when it is gone, be silent like a tree. And enjoy both… both are beautiful.” 4

Once you start to examine this approach, you see examples everywhere.

What about “trust.” Can you “do” trust? No way. Another of life’s most powerful phenomena that is literally “beyond our grasp.” It is the grasping itself, which is our doing, which prevents it from happening because it can only happen if there is no doing, which includes no grasping.

Or “gratitude”? Or authenticity? What could be more phony than “doing” authenticity? Or “doing” gratitude?

Or “creativity”?

Osho again:

“It happens to almost all people – unless they come to know that there is a possibility of a totally different kind of creativity. That creativity is not of the mind. It is of no-mind. In the West, mind still remains the source of all creativity. In the East, we have worked totally differently. That’s why you will always see a difference in a Zen painting, or a Zen poem. It is a totally different world, because the person who was making it was not motivated by any idea. It simply came – out of the blue. He was not more than a vehicle, a passage.” 5

Phrases like “out of the blue” or thinking “out of the box” all hint at their mysterious origins. Or the way we view “insights” or “intuition” or “inspiration” – that seem to pop out of nowhere from some inner space.

What about the need to change? Almost all of us have been given the idea that we could be “better” than we are.

Or worse, we “should” be better than we are. Then when we try and change, it doesn’t happen, even if we want it. Why not? Because it is again us trying to “do” that change. But it is our doing that provokes the need for change in the first place. So round and round we go, and nothing changes.

If this is right, it totally transforms how we view ourselves and everything in our lives.

It seems that all “we” can “do” is to cause conflict, and everything that creates harmony happens by itself, in spite of us, if you like.

All we can do is to allow these phenomena to happen, and not destroy them by trying to grab hold of them and own them.

What is behind all this? Back to Basho. The “mind” as it is understood in the modern Western context.

“I think therefore I am.” There you go. Game, set, and match. Thinking is the king of the castle. The alternative, being “mindless,” is to be stupid, right?

Well, not quite.

From the non-Western perspective, the mind is part of the body and, like other parts of the body, is an amazing mechanism. But you wouldn’t let your legs be your master. So, just because the legs decide to go for a walk, you would have to go along helplessly following wherever the legs decide to take you?

So, how come we accept that same helplessness as a normal way of relating to the mind? We seem to be happy that the mind decides everything. We regard the mind as being the highest expression of creation – and we have even been convinced that we are the mind.

Osho, Basho, and all those who are part of the non-Western paradigm, going back some millennia now, are all agreed on exactly the opposite.

Yes, the mind is an amazing mechanism, but as a servant, not as the boss!

When you need to cheat on your income tax, bring it on. When you want to enjoy a beautiful sunset, switch it off! As Patanjali’s first Yoga Sutra states: “Cessation of the mind.”

For them, thinking is the king of the sandcastle only.

Intelligence happens when the mind is silent, and not cluttered up with all its usual second-hand beliefs, ideas, and preconceived perceptions: when instead, reality is visible directly!

The Western intelligentsia has been covering up the fact that they have an involuntary verbalization machine in their head that never stops talking. It decides who they are, what they are going to do today, how they are feeling, and finally what kind of day they had! They are suffering from a kind of mental Tourette’s syndrome that no one mentions in polite society. Instead of the mind being this brilliant servant, thinking has been accepted as the master – in spite of being essentially, an obsessive-compulsive tic!

Imagine you are watching a great movie and the person in the next seat is continually talking. If you can’t stop them talking then you will have to leave or change seats. But what if that person who is continually talking is in your head? Whatever you choose, to leave or find another seat, the talking goes with you. There is no escape. But if you admit you are hearing voices….

This is not a harmless deceit.

The verbalizing mind operates through contrast.

“White” only has meaning in contrast to “black.” “Saint” only has meaning in contrast to “sinner.” Day/night, up/down, higher/lower, better/worse, top/bottom… all the way to the end of the 20th volume of The Oxford English Dictionary.

Anything based on contrast is a perfect setting for conflict rather than harmony. So, Inevitably, the mind can only become a very cruel master. Consider the endless discrimination and judgments it churns out, both about ourselves and others…. Then ramp up the voltage with a mad competition for survival in the modern world and you immediately realize why humanity is going nuts.

Peace of mind, like mental health, is a contradiction in terms. The mind knows only tension. It is a dis-ease.

It can neither be peaceful nor healthy. Then you make it the master? Hello! Sanity is “cessation of the mind,” no-mind in Zen, meditation to you and me – the option of the off switch!

It is one of the unappreciated seven wonders of the world that Western scientists spend so much time, money, and energy using the mind to understand the mind – and then calling themselves objective scientists.

Osho nails down the absurdity of all this in his wonderfully humorous way:

“They are all wrong – wrong for the simple reason that living in the mind you cannot look at it from a detached space, which is the basic scientific method. If you are studying tomatoes, one thing is absolutely necessary: that you should not be a tomato. You can be anything else.” 6

They totally ignore the non-Western proposal: observe your own mind. That would be the observation of the mind as an object – objective science.

No wonder consciousness is described by these scientists as “a hard problem.”

It is bound to be hard if you insist on looking in exactly the wrong direction: outward rather than inward. As Basho put it, “Sitting silently….”

When in doubt, read the manual.

Equally absurd are the attempts of Western psychiatrists to “fix” the mind! It is not fixable! The opposition between this and that is what the mind does for a living! Conflict and tension are its stock in trade.

Ok. Ok. So, the mind is running my life into the ground with a constant flow of instructions, that are causing so much noise, I cannot hear what is really going on.

Now what?

You will never guess.

First, you are going to have to allow yourself to accept this reality. Then you are going to have to allow yourself to just watch this chatterbox mind.

If you try and “do” something about it, you just make the situation worse.

Back to Basho. Back to square one. All that is most valuable in life, including life itself, are gifts from existence, if only we knew how to accept them.

As the old joke has it:

Two mothers were overheard talking about their sons.
“My boy has taken up meditation,” said one.
The other replied, “Well, I suppose it’s better than sitting around doing nothing.”


And finally the next step: “How to Discover the Magical Art of Allowing?”

The talks that are excerpted in this article, and published, can be read in full by following these links:

1. Osho, The Book of the Secrets, Talk #9 – Techniques for Centering

2. Osho, Nirvana: The Last Nightmare, Talk #6 – Taking the Risk

3. Osho, The Last Testament, Vol. 1, Talk #8 – Live This Moment

4. Osho, God’s Got a Thing about You, Talk #20

5. Osho, Nothing to Lose but Your Head, Talk #14

6. Osho, From Bondage to Freedom, Talk #43 – The Blessed Ones

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