The Art Of Doing Nothing.
The final frontier of the mind.
Of all of the things we try to do, nothing is the hardest. In fact, doing nothing is so difficult, that most people go their entire lives without even attempting it.
And why should they? Humanity has spent its entire existence doing things. We’re really good at it. We hope we dream, we invent and we plan. We think of things and then we build them. We solve problems. We get things done. What’s the problem with that?
Well, for starters, there’s the fact that for all of the good things that our addiction to “doing” brings, we also spend a lot of time helplessly doing things we know we shouldn’t. Even when they hurt us. We fight and we worry. We fear and we hate. We destroy things and we say things we don’t mean. We fail to live up to our own expectations. We do all of these things too. And like I said earlier, we’re really good at it.
The fact that we’re so compelled to do things, that we’d rather be doing something that hurts us than not doing anything at all, explains why meditation is so often misunderstood. We’re so conditioned to use our minds, so used to everything being an activity, that it’s hard for us to conceive of something which is not an activity. Instead of allowing meditation to be an opportunity to rest the mind, we make it into a problem for the mind to solve.
The mind, of course, is perfectly happy with this. In fact, it dives into its job as enthusiastically as any other job it’s given. How should I sit? How should I breathe? How do I stop my thoughts? Am I progressing quickly enough? All of this in addition to the general activity of surfacing a constant stream of thoughts. The mind becomes so focused on doing a good job of doing nothing that it hardly has time to notice that it’s just doing a different something.
Here is the challenge of meditation; to spend 10 or 20 minutes of your day doing nothing. To make a distinction between the mind as an invaluable tool, and the mind as the thing that controls all of your actions. To stop worrying if you’re doing it right, or what you’re going to do later, or whether you’re improving, or whether there’s something better you could be doing with your time. To simply, for a short while, let everything go.
Inevitably, the mind asks “Why would you even want to do this?” It reminds you of all of the good things it does. How clever it is. How you rely on it to navigate the world, to imagine, to learn, to think. It reminds you that it has served you throughout your entire life.
All of this is true. But it fails to remind you of all the times it doesn’t serve you. It doesn’t remind you of its habit of reminding you about the one embarrassing thing you did 10 years ago, or the way it fills your head with the worst-case scenarios when you’re afraid. It conveniently forgets how it encourages you to watch Netflix or eat ice-cream when you’re trying to be more productive or get in shape. It studiously avoids the way it dominates every waking moment with thoughts, how it won’t allow you to just say “Enough!” when you need a break from it.
The mind has convinced you that it is you. That taking break from it is like taking a break from who you are. But this isn’t true. The mind is a tool which you use. The ability to take a break from this tool when you don’t need it is not only useful but healthy, just as being able to take a break from your smartphone (although it’s worth noting that most of us haven’t done this for what feels like a lifetime either).
In fact, the smartphone is a perfect analogy for the mind. The smartphone is arguably the greatest invention of all time. It gives us instant access to the sum total of human knowledge, it allows us to see and hear our friends and loved ones in real-time, from almost anywhere on the planet, it entertains us, it teaches us, it manages our love lives. It is without question the most essential tool in modern life. Yet we know that excess smartphone usage can negatively affect sleep, increase levels of anxiety and depression, and damage our relationships.
As wonderful as the mind is, we need to be able to put it down sometimes. Doing nothing is not the same as checking out. It isn’t apathy or laziness which are also states of mind. It’s a way of truly checking in with life, without the constant background noise of thoughts and worries and anxieties. It’s a way of learning how to use the mind when it’s useful and give yourself a break from it when it’s not. Meditation is the art of doing nothing. And there really is nothing like it.