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Do Nothing Meditation

do nothing meditation

by Michael W. Taft

The sages of many spiritual traditions have said that the highest state of spiritual awakening is already present in each human being. Total enlightenment has always been there, is there now, deep down at the base of each mind. In Buddhism this is referred to as the Buddha Nature, or Rigpa, in Hinduism it is called the True Self.

It’s funny that most meditation techniques focus on cultivating some special state that wasn’t there before the meditation, and which fades away after the meditation. If true awakening is present all the time, shouldn’t it be possible to just notice it without trying to induce a special state? Shouldn’t you just be able to see it directly?

Doing Nothing — How Does that Work?

Here is a meditation technique that does just that. I call it the “Do Nothing” technique (which is the name given to it by meditation teacher Shinzen Young), but the same method (or something quite similar) is called shikantaza (“just sitting”) in Zen Buddhism, dzogchen in Tibetan Buddhism, and is practiced in Advaita Vedanta (nondual Hinduism) as well. The famous teacher Krishnamurti called it “choiceless awareness.”

The core idea of this practice is that while, yes, total awakening is already present in your mind at every moment, we often have trouble noticing it or contacting it (to say the least). One of the main blockages or obscurations that gets in the way is the sense of being a doer. Doership is the core of the sense of self, the heart of the ego. When you let go of the sense of effort, the sense of trying, the sense of choosing and doing, then there is a corresponding relaxing and diminishment of the ego.

That is, by sitting and intentionally doing nothing for long enough, we eventually starve the ego of its juice, and something very different begins to shine through.

This idea is thousands of years old, what does science have to say?

The Neuroscience of Doing Nothing

There is some very interesting recent neuroscience that backs this idea up. The posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) is a brain structure that is a major player in the default mode network (DMN). The default mode network is active whenever we are not engaged in a particular task, and usually thinking about ourselves. One major study showed that DMN activity is strongly correlated with negative affect, meaning that this preoccupation with the self makes you feel bad.

FMRI brain scans show, however, that the activity of the PCC decreases when we let go of the feeling of doing anything. The more it feels like things are just effortlessly happening, the more your default mode network slows down, which is great for feeling good.

In fact, this feeling of letting go and allowing everything to just effortlessly unfold is one of the hallmarks of the flow state, or a peak experience. Most peak experiences only happen with something that we’ve been practicing for years, and has become so automatic that it seems effortless. But you can touch a flow state relatively quickly and easily: it’s one of the Do Nothing meditation benefits.

And if it goes very well you may begin to notice your already-awakened mind, at least a little bit.

Do Nothing Meditation Technique

The full instructions for the Do Nothing meditation technique are: sit down and do nothing.

That’s it. Sit down and quite intentionally do nothing at all. Now keep on doing it.

However, most people need a little more instruction than that, so let’s unpack it a bit. Even though the meditation is called Do Nothing, you’re actually doing a little tiny bit of something: you’re paying attention to the feeling of doing something.

It doesn’t matter where your mind goes. It can go to all sorts of distraction, and that’s fine. You are not trying to meditate, focus, or concentrate in any way.

You’re simply noticing when you feel that you’re doing something and letting go of that.

If it feels like you’re getting caught up in a thought, let go of that. Don’t just sit there following thoughts, planning, evaluating, etc. That is considered to be doing something. Just let go of doingt hat.

If it feels like you’re getting caught up in an emotion, let go of that.

If it feels like you’re getting caught up in meditating, let go of that.

If it feels like you’re struggling to let go, let go of that.

If it feels like you’re constricting or tightening in your body, your emotions, or your mind, let go of that.

Just keep relaxing away from all tightening, constriction, or sense that you’re doing anything.

(Don’t) do this meditation for as long as you’d like. Make sure your awareness is bright and you are not fading or sleepy. Eventually the mind feels very spacious, open, and relaxed, but also bright, clear, and vivid.

Important Note: Over time I’ve noticed that English speakers have two ways of understanding the verb “to let go.” One meaning is “to release.” The second meaning is “to get rid of” or “to push away.” Notice that the first of these is effortless, while the second implies a lot of effort. When I write “let go of that,” I’m talking about effortlessly releasing. You’re not trying to get rid of something, pushing anything away, or making a big effort.

What to Do If It’s Really Not Working

Sometimes, Doing Nothing results in nothing more than sitting there thinking about fights you’ve recently had at work, or getting really sleepy. These sorts of experiences are normal some of the time, and something we let go of in this practice. However, if you’re spending a majority of your time in each meditation period just thinking or falling asleep, then it’s time to back up a bit and take some steps to help.

The most basic fix is to spend ten minutes or so focusing on breathing. You want to get a bit concentrated and more relaxed. Just a little bit of stability and focus in the mind will allow you to then go back to the Do Nothing practice with more confidence.

If you keep falling into drowsiness, then sit with your eyes a little bit open and unfocused. You’re not trying to stare at anything, but just to let some light in. If you’re still drowsy after that, sit up very straight. If you’re still snoozy after that, the meditate standing up. Still tired? You need some sleep!

Do Nothing Meditation Benefits

The Do Nothing Meditation is both easier and harder than it sounds. If you practice it often, you’ll find something very deep within you relaxing and opening to the natural flow of experience. And that’s how you find awakening by doing absolutely nothing.

Here is a video of teacher Shinzen Young talking about the Do Nothing technique.

Downtime for the Stone Age Brain

Five Reasons We Should All Learn to Do Nothing (Guardian article)

Read more about nonduality on Deconstructing Yourself

photo by John Gillespie

21 thoughts on “Do Nothing Meditation”

  1. A unique feature of this type of meditation is that there is what I’ve been calling a “cascading flow” experience with thoughts, urges, emotions, etc… they rise up and we gently roll off of, so it’s a rising and rolling kind of meditation. Primarily because there’s no object like the breath or a mantra to return to, there’s just the rising and rolling experience itself. Very distinctive and stirring, in my opinion.

    I’m interested if you would describe your process of letting go of thoughts/emotions. Sometimes I find as little time spent on the thoughts is best, sometimes I need to allow myself to go with them a bit to avoid having to apply effort or doing. I find any kind of labeling that is more specific than it being a general thought is ineffective. For example, labeling what appears to be worrying “worrying” is problematic because it’s judgmental. It’s tricky and I’m sure this is all very individual. But I’d love to hear you describe your process. Letting go is sometimes easier or harder than it first appears.

    Thanks for the article.

    1. I love your description of “cascading flow,” which is right on.
      In terms of letting go of thoughts and feelings, what you’re describing is, to my way of defining it, doing something. The idea here is to do nothing at all. So you’re not controlling attention to go towards or away from the thoughts. That’s doing something. Even labeling is, for this meditation, doing too much. Letting go means to stop doing.

      1. Thank you again for this concise article. I find myself returning to it over the last couple years as I cultivate this valuable meditation. I wanted to ask if you could speak a bit more about your own process of “letting go of that”, whether it be thoughts, emotions, etc. I have found this to be the vital aspect of the meditation. For example, I have found at first when I would have that moment of awareness of getting caught up in a thought, the executive function kicks in and this is what conducts the process of letting go. In the beginning, I would do it abruptly and forcefully. The best analogies would be slamming on the breaks or yanking a choke chain on a dog. If I was thinking in the middle of a sentence I would cut it off instantly. This feels like far too much doing and is not gentle. So I’ve found that the better way is to gently let go, and to continue with my analogy it’s more like letting the foot off the gas then putting it on the brakes. But to be gentle there has to be a certain amount of allowance, and so if I was in the middle of a sentence maybe that sentence would be allowed to complete and trail off as I let go. Intuitively, this feels like the more natural way and gives way to that “cascading flow” I mentioned before but still feels like a tiny bit of doing as well, but perhaps like you said there is no true 100% Nothing in Do Nothing. Anyway, I wanted to ask for your take on it. Thanks again for the article!

  2. Very good article. We seem to be hearing a lot more about breath meditation but do nothing was recommended by my psychologist and it suits me better. Thanks fo r sharing this.

  3. another teacher that teaches in this style is U Tejanyia. When I did a retreat with Shinzen my go to was do nothing. I think the reason I was attracted to this was because I notice too much tension while doing other techniques. I later did 2 retreats in U Tejanyia’s style and found them to be very beneficial as it somehow showed me other aspects that I was missing during my sits.

    thank you for sharing this!!!

  4. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I’ve done this for maybe 5 months but I’m really stressed out and anxious constantly, it’s worse now, maybe it’s worse before it’s better? How long does it take before it gets better? Trying to just relax and let emotions go through me, maybe I’m doing something when labeling things. But this have really been a hard one for me as I’m very neurotic and controlling person.

  5. The first time I did -not- do this meditation some days ago after have watched S. Young on it and this youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4yipKfO8nA, I felt something that I never experienced before with any meditation technique I did. Something opening up, a relaxation… I have as long as I can remember been a driven, perfectionist kind of hsp, experiencing lots of tension in my body. Now I felt immediately that this is my thing, un-doing, un-knowing after all the books I have read. In the meantime I am fascinated, reading The Mindful Geek, about the neurological a.o.implications. Thanks for the article…Kind regards, Fred

          1. Christopher Clewlow

            Hi Michael, I feel this technique really clicked spontaneously on a massive dose of psilocybin.

            But I have put my own spin on it.

            I think the core of ‘do nothing’ is none judgement, obviously important with any meditation but its easier to pull off with this technique.

            To not judge is to observe and to observe is to not judge in my opinion.

            I think before the meditation begins an intention should be set that whatever happens is OK.

            This way all emotions and thoughts flow by, you may get caught up but falling back on none judgement passively you are naturaly released.

            Dropping intentions doesn’t work for me because I judge whether I have dropped the intention, if anything goes intentions seem to drop themselves.

            I’ve only just started doing it and I think the least it will do is teach me the core attitude required for all meditation; none judgement.

            I’m feeling a mild sense of joy after each meditation.

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