by Michael W. Taft
The sages of many spiritual traditions have said that the highest state of spiritual awakening is present in each human being at all times. Total enlightenment has always been there, is there now, and always will be there deep down at the base of consciousness. 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 at some point after the meditation. If true awakening is present all the time, shouldn’t it be possible to just notice it without inducing a special state? Should you just be able to, well, 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 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.
The theory 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 distracted and 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 PCC and default mode network slow 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 that has become so automatic that it seems effortless. But with the Do Nothing meditation, you can touch a flow state relatively quickly and easily.
And if it goes very well you may begin to notice your already-awakened mind, at least a little bit.
How to Do the Do Nothing Meditation
The full instructions for the Do Nothing meditation are to sit down and do nothing.
That’s it. Sit down and quite intentionally do nothing at all.
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.
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.
Opening to the Natural Flow of Experience
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.
photo by John Gillespie