On Not Doing

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Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There’ 

Thich Nat Hanh

Recent reveries have rekindled the spark of joy that I find in contemplating, and practicing, the ‘art of doing nothing’ or ‘wuwei’ as the Daoists call it.

Over the years I have found the practices that have inspired and helped me the most have all started with Doing Nothing. The Alexander Technique, Biodynamic Gardening, Permaculture, Tai Chi, Chi Gong, the Seven Medicines, and most recently, Yoga, all begin with a period of stillness, of doing nothing – whether it be for a few minutes or a few years.

This act of doing nothing is not a passive act, of lying vacant on the sofa, but an active state.

An active engagement with things as they are’ 

Solala Towler

By holding the possibility of an action, and having a deep awareness of what is happening around us, we can then make the best decision possible as to what to do next.

True quiet means keeping still when the time has come to keep still, and going forward when the time has come to go forward’ 

Hexagram 52, I Ching

We are not to opt out, not in a sleep, not in a trance – but very much alive’ 

Miss Goldie (Alexander Technique)

Gerda Geddess, a Tai Chi teacher, describes it as a ‘pregnant emptiness.’ Within this space there is a possibility of something to come. Rushing ahead will only mean things are premature, unripe, unready. Even before the Big Bang when there was the ‘ultimate nothingness’ there was ‘certainly something’.

A possibility of something to come.

How then can we learn to know the benefit of ‘resorting to no action. The teaching that uses no words?’ (43, Tao Te Ching).

One way Buddhist Nun Ani Rinchin said to me is ‘to do yourself a favour and do nothing for 20 minutes a day.’

I find the best time to do this is first thing in the morning, before anyone else is awake, before the hustle and bustle of the day creeps in. You don’t have to formally meditate, just sitting and relaxing, allowing thoughts to come and go is of benefit: having a cup of tea always helps too. You can then try and carry this relaxed state into your day.

Doing nothing can also be practiced on the bus or in the car. On the bus is great as you don’t have to do anything except look out of the window and relax. If you are driving you can practice at the red lights:

turn your engine off or put it in neutral,

relax your hands into your lap,

breathe,

relax some more.

I used to feel anxious about when the lights would change until I heard herbalist Susan Weed saying not to worry because the people behind you would let you know soon enough! So now I really do enjoy the few moments to relax,

breathe,

and see what green blessings are growing nearby.

This ability to brighten the spirit, to lighten the load of the human predicament, to make it more bearable, is a medicine that many people need, and this quality should never be overlooked in a plant’ 

Stephen Harrod Buhner

Frederik Alexander was always being asked what people should do for good posture – but to him the key question was really what they should not do.

We can take a moment before we stand, sit, get out of bed, to relax.

To Not Do.

Then we can move more mindfully, and have better posture.

There are numerous examples of how not to do. Some of my favourites include:

bird watching

looking at the stars

watching the sea, waves, clouds, flames of the fire,

children playing

ants….

Great locations for doing nothing can be found:

at the bus stop,

on the toilet,

in the queue at the supermarket,

waiting for the kettle to boil,

in the garden, park, woods…

One of the reasons that I find doing nothing is beneficial to me is that I notice so much more. In my house, garden, on the pavement. One of the biggest changes it has brought to my life is that I’m more aware in my medicine making and prescribing.

I stop and spend time with a plant before harvesting from it – What part should I use? Are there insects living there? How much can I take? Once the medicine is made I can also take a moment before using it. Is it the right medicine to use? If so, how much should I have?

By not doing in my first step, I find I make less mistakes in my second step.

Finally, what keeps me practicing is seeing how some of my teachers and old ascetics exude a sense of calmness and stillness that is awe-inspiring. Yung Cheng Fu, Tai Chi teacher, describes it beautifully.

Motion in Stillness and Stillness in Motion.’

We are aiming to create no ripples as we move, and this is what I see in old Buddhist nuns for example. Even in their physical actions they exude a stillness, a not doing, that I want to bring into my life as much as possible.

silence is the place,

the focus,

of the radical encounter

with the divine.’

Sara Maitland

simone melanie, February 2020

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References

Books

Buhner, Stephen Harrod. 2004. The Secret Teachings of Plants. Bear and Company.

Fee, Natalie. 2012. The Everyday Alchemist’s Happiness Handbook. Findhorn Press.

Geddes, Gerda. 1991. Looking for the Golden Needle; An Allegorical Journey. Manna Media.

Maitland, Sara. 2008. The Book of Silence. Granta Books.

Robb, Fiona. 1999. Not to ‘Do’. Cannon Press.

Towler, Solala. 2010. Cha Dao: The Way of Tea, Tea as a Way of Life. Singing Dragon.

Tzu, Lao translated by Dale, Ralph Alan. 2002. The Tao Te Ching. Watkins.

Weed, Susun. 2002. New Menopausal Years, The Wise Woman Way. Ash Tree Publishing.

Wilhelm, Richard, translated by. 1989. I Ching. Arkana.

DVDs

Blessings: The Tsoknyi Nangchen Nuns of Tibet.

Wheel of Time: Werner Herzog.

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