Life unfolds between moments of doing something and moments of doing nothing.
One is the opposite of the other in the same dimension of external appearances. Life seems to pendulate between the polarities of activity and rest. But that is just the surface.
There is a third doing belonging to another dimension: Non-doing at the core of both doing something and doing nothing. This non-doing is the secret bridge to life’s dimension that in its becoming and disappearing, arising and fading, is independent of whether we do something or do nothing. From the depths of this other dimension of life, or of Life (with capital L) if you so want, the law of Being manifests as one of the most essentially human characteristics – presence. Whether we do something or do nothing, presence is the way Being manifests beyond just automatic and mindless existence, and it remains unshakably linked to its lawful principles of non-doing. That path, that way of Being as presence is the essential non-doing within both doing something and doing nothing. In Chinese culture, this is called Wu Wei.
Doing something and doing nothing become wholesome and sacred acts only then, when they don’t impede the manifestation of Being coming from the depths Life. Whether we act selfishly or selflessly, being too wrapped up in our busyness runs the risk of impeding Being from becoming manifest as presence in our lives. It seems obvious how busyness impedes the radiant blossoming of presence; it is trickier to realize how doing nothing may impede presence just as much, when it is filled with inner unrest.
Non-doing is the expression of presence emerging from the stillness of Being. This stillness is not the absence of movement, but our learned capacity to get out of nature’s dynamically unfolding ways. Stillness is therefore always there to be tapped into when we know-how, right in the midst of life’s bustling catastrophe. Conversely, in life’s quiet moments of doing nothing, non-doing is also the expression of a profound connection to the irrepressible, creative, and dynamic source of life. In other words, non-doing is both a vast space of stillness amid chaos and an intimate connection to the ever-creative and dynamic source of life.
Being is beyond doing something and doing nothing, and therefore often seen as the transcendent dimension of existence. Our collective calling to becoming fully human during our existence, beyond the animalistic fulfillment of needs for survival, is precisely about making sure that nothing gets in the way of the subtle, quiet, but the powerful human impulse to reveal the presence of Being. To this end, it behooves us to develop and practice non-doing within all our many active and receptive doing activities, and consistently orient ourselves towards its powerful energy that serves as a beacon, measure, direction, and meaning for our lives. When rooted in non-doing, the lively and life-affirming dynamic of our human essence is protected from the suffocating busyness of our goal-oriented doing.
We typically practice non-doing in our formal meditation sittings. Through meditation, we remain open to the initiatory core of all doing and behaving. In Wu Wei, we maintain an accepting openness towards life’s mystery, which yearns for expression and human testimony.
When Wu Wei directs action, there is ease and relaxation, because our ego steps aside to allow our true self to be in charge. This true self is not a unified entity in us, but rather our moment-by-moment attitude when we can get out of life’s spontaneous, dynamically unfolding ways. This free and easy non-doing amid the busy market place we call Wu Wei, also carries the living word of our communications. Speaking in accordance with the presence of Being means speaking from the depth of stillness as the resonance board for our words’ deeper meanings. Words with power come from silence. Right speech that is attuned to whom we speak with, sounds loudly with the silence that is so characteristic of presence in Being. Conversely, the word of Being falls silent amidst the yapping and chatter of mindless gossip.
If all this sounds theoretical or philosophical to you, let me give a recent example from an email I just received from one of my students. She writes: “Regarding the four steps of our transformation algorithm meditation practice, letting oneself go and surrender to the flow of the breath, how do I surrender and trust the flow to carry me, if (based on my life experience) I no longer believe in the ‘benevolence of the Universe’?” This a question that typically arises when as I described above one is stuck in ‘the suffocating business of goal-oriented doing’, which severs our connection to ‘non-doing as the lively and life-affirming dynamic of our human essence’. To the extent this student is alienated from Being, what she fails to realize is that this state of alienation is a huge opportunity and one of the royal roads to accessing the mystery of Being.
The first step is to understand that when she says she no longer believes in the benevolence of the universe, what she is really saying is that her problem-solving, goal-oriented mind no longer believes. In other words, she is saying something of crucial importance without knowing that she is saying it – and that is that she has reached the limit of what the problem-solving mind can handle, understand, and process. To put it differently, she has reached the limits of the ‘doing-something-and-doing-nothing’ dimension. This is good news she can rejoice in – on one hand, that is. On the other hand, the scary leap starts now: It is the leap that entails a relinquishing of this limited sense of meaning the problem-solving mind creates, and surrender to what from the problem-solving mind’s point of view appears as the universe’s utter malevolence, destructiveness, meaninglessness, forsakenness, and absurdity. It is a leap into the void with the seemingly real expectation of falling to one’s demise. This is why wise men and women say that when you die before you die, you will not die when you die. It is a leap of faith without a shred of trust, or maybe if lucky, a shred of trust that comes from the encouraging words of the many teachers who have taken this journey before you. This infinite void without reassurances appears to be so dark, destructive and absurd, because the problem-solving mind, which we allowed to dominate our sense of reality over a whole lifetime, has no reference points for it. No words, no concepts, no narratives, not even any sensory experiences apply to what this apparent void is all about.
Only once we have dared to take the leap, which is, in fact, another way of saying that we dared to show up, live fully and manifest presence in Being, only then do we discover a most astonishing reality – what we thought was the universe’s benevolence was nothing more than our little ego’s rationalization that when we thrive and have no pain, no illness, and no death, we think the universe is benevolent. When calamities occur, we think it is bad. What meager nonsense! We discover something of untold beauty, namely that whatever happens, whether we are young or old, fresh or decrepit, smooth or wrinkled, healthy or sick, alive or about to die, an incredible, nameless sense of peace and love awaits us to be discovered, and that we are not just part of the universe, but we are, have always been, and will always be this universe unfolding, filled with love and awe-inspiring beauty. It is impossible to properly describe this awakening when we open ourselves up to this new dimension – as they say in Zen, we can only talk about the finger pointing to the moon, not the moon itself. For those inclined to read sacred texts, read the story of Job in the Bible, or the story of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, just to name two among many, and you’ll know what I am trying to write about.
Back to my student: How do you take that leap? You have to embrace the stark and painful darkness of absurdity and meaninglessness with curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love while making sure you consistently use your meditation tools and psychotherapy, if necessary, the proper way. Most people shy away from that precipice, often because they simply don’t have the tools to meet their mind’s depth, they don’t have the patience and dedication to walk that path, or they don’t have a teacher experienced enough to guide them through. Having a teacher with experience is essential because without him or her one can easily shatter under the barrage of dangerous weapons of our mind’s bad neighborhoods. Not surprisingly Jesus said: “Many are called, but few are chosen!” Who does not want that kind of liberation independent from circumstance? Yet who is prepared to put in the necessary training to make that more probable?
Just a short aside, resist the idea that liberation from suffering is absolute, perfect, and a painless paradise. Instead, it is about a journey without end, a journey that in its endless unfolding is the goal, an abiding equanimity and peace in the middle of the busy marketplace with all its pleasures and pains. It is Wu Wei.
The practice of non-doing is a practice in taking oneself back, in undoing and unlearning. It is a retreat from identification with the external appearances of reality, which threaten to overstretch, or even break the golden thread that binds us to our transcendental essence. This retreat from the world of appearances is at the same time a turning towards and tuning into the depths of Being and presence, and therefore by no means a withdrawal from life, but a deepening of our access to life’s full context and splendor.
Living that way is an art, which requires the intentional effort of dedicated practice we commit ourselves to when we decide to walk the path of freedom. When we become experienced in the art of non-doing, everything we encounter in life radiates with the power of Life and its transcendental dimension that is awaiting to be discovered. We then recognize how the multitude of life forms and things in the universe are each individual and unique space- and time-bound manifestations of timeless and nameless Being. To live a life of initiation means to dedicate ourselves to recognize life as endless transformation, in which we lovingly manifest through presence and deeds the timeless principles of sacred Being.
Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.