I’ve been noticing (once again) this mental wrestling with resting or simply being - not doing anything.
When was the last time that you did nothing, for even a brief period of time?
Not reading to relax or listening to a knowledge-sharing podcast whilst on a walk - but actually setting the intention to be, to simply exist? (These are both perfectly valid and multi-beneficial ways to unwind of course, but for the sake of this piece, they still involve doing something - engaging the mind in information, receiving ideas which may then lead to more narrative about their application etc.)
It’s an interesting question in terms of reflecting on what arises - does it seem strange to do nothing, pointless use of time, worthless or even lazy?
I’ve wrestled with all those things recently. I have a daily meditation practice and so there are clear defined periods in my day where I am simply being, with the intention to be aware only; a state of non-doing.
But outside of these times, the past few days have shown me that there is difficulty in simply being. Almost as if I need permission from somewhere…
Having had to cancel my attendance to a family wedding (3-days as the trip from London to Yorkshire required the day either side for travel), I found myself without fixed work commitments or anything at all in my calendar.
“Life is a balance between rest and movement”
I went about my days with a little more freedom despite the extra attention that my elderly aunt and cat needed in their healing processes (the reasons for the missed wedding). I read, went to the hot yoga studio daily and did my practices, cooked meals, house chores etc.
But then there was the dread of needing to do something more productive, a berating voice “you’ve got this bonus time now, you should use it wisely”
I sat to try and write an article but couldn’t focus.
I sat to read up on some mindfulness training resources that I’d been meaning to, but couldn’t focus.
I got frustrated and noticed I started judging myself.
Noticing this self-judgement was key in the realisation that there was an underlying pull to do nothing, to simply be.
Which on the face of it was very difficult - what loomed over me quickly was this sense of getting left behind in the ‘rat race’, especially now freelancing, would mean that I’ve lost ground - time wasted!
Why the difficulty? After all, if I live to be 80 - what’s a few days doing nothing? There’s plenty of days… My reflections led me to a few things. The nature of our capitalist society - always striving for more, whether innovation or output, here in lies the notion that one is judged on the basis of their value to the economic element of society. How many are judged on their compassion or altruistic deliverance to a society? It’s clear to see why feelings of unworthiness may arise if one decides to simply be, not do anything.
The general fast-paced nature of today’s external environment (mostly from a London or city-centric perspective) leads us to believe there is so much to do - whether that be a new show or new bar, new film or new restaurant, new Netflix series or gallery, new podcast or new book to consume.
There is a lot of stimulation, distraction and things demanding one’s attention - it seems like there is a mammoth force that acts as a barrier to any stillness, or simply doing nothing.
The fear of missing out, the notion that we only we only live once so need to cram it all in - how can one waste time in simply being when there is a smorgasbord of sensual delights on offer?!
Without our awareness a fast-paced hectic external environment naturally and eventually will be reflected by a fast-paced internal environment - leading to all sorts of difficulties. Mental well-being, anxiety, trouble sleeping or lack of concentration or attention on tasks, chemical imbalance due to internal stress - these sound all too familiar.
Then there is physical exercise - how easy to get caught up in the attachment to the end. The goals or the outcomes of training rather than the practice itself - physique or aesthetic usually. This attachment often leads to more feelings of guilt if I don’t train for a day, often ignoring the subtle requests of the body for a rest.
These thoughts were challenging, and provided enough resistance for me to become aware that this doing nothing and simply being was exactly what was necessary in these moments. The resistance is usually a sign that something needs to be faced, a comfort zone that needs stepping out of.
Thus began this contemplation of balancing movement and stillness.
By movement I mean physical (exercise, labour, running errands etc.) and mental activity (knowledge work, research, thinking, stimulation etc.), things like socialising and engaging in conversation - any thing that requires the use of our inner energetic resources.
And by stillness I mean, resting or walking in nature without technology, spending time in meditaiton or time alone doing nothing - no reading, watching TV or consuming content.
“The body benefits from movement, the mind benefits from stillness.”
- Sakyong Mipham
It may not be possible (even logical) to instruct your entire external world to slow down so you can rest, but there is a possibility to do it the other way round - creating some space, a little stillness and a slower internal world so that eventually the external world may begin to reflect this.
Chinese Philosophy seems to have perfect antidote for my dilemma - the practice of Wu-wei. Or the middle way, effortless action or a more familiar term: being in the flow.
Is it possible to act effortlessly? To surrender and still produce? It seems a paradox. Another one which fits the bill from the text Tao the Ching (roughly translating to ‘The Way’) is ‘the way never acts yet nothing is left undone’.
It seems to me that this is a state of mind, an equanimity which is not gripped by resisting or striving or forcing. Actions produced from this space seem more in line with the way of things as they are rather than how I am; it’s from this space that my behaviour matches that of the natural world and natural processes - swimming with the current of life rather than against it.
Or in other words, there is a possibility to respond to the demands of the situation - the space given by the stillness of mind the question arises ‘what is actually required here?’ As opposed to ‘what do I want to get out of this situation?’
How is it possible to become aware for the what the situation demands?
Meditation is a practice of cultivating awareness of what is; of noticing what you notice. Just as one notices a bruise on the arm because of its painful sensation or how we notice the sounds of bird, it’s possible to notice ‘thinking’ - thoughts are not bad and it’s not about controlling them, but simply noticing them.
It’s this cultivation of awareness of the activity of our mind that makes it possible to notice the moments of stillness, of spaciousness, of a quiet mind. And then once again thoughts arise and we get carried away on the current of subjective narrative. But it’s having the experience of something like a baseline stillness that now we are able to come back to if we choose to - this is the practice.
As this practice permeates into our daily life, it becomes a little more evident how much our thinking mind gets in the way or creates a subjective barrier to being with things as they are; or how it wants and strives for it’s own benefit rather than flowing with the way things are.
It seems to be less tiring to go with the current of things, less inner resources are required to be with the natural process of life unfolding. But it’s only with a little space and a little stillness that we may become aware of what this natural process requires from us. The spaciousness provides the opportunity to make choices based on how we are in this moment, the stillness provides the opportunity to act based on what is needed in this moment. We still act and things still get done but from this space of stillness.
It seems this may be a way to balance movement and stillness, where there is stillness in action.