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 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.

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

Comments

  1. I loved it, gives me a whole new perspective on my meditatiin and mindfulnes practices.

  2. 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!

        1. Yes, Ron, the idea is to let go in a very gentle manner, not to slam anything shut or stop abruptly. Usually, learning to finesse this is just a matter of practice.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!!!

  5. 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.

  6. It used to be said something like doing without doing …or just hit the ball ..bat it.

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