The Practice of 'Doing Nothing'

I practiced in the Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH) for 3-5 years before shifting towards EBT/Theravada a year ago. TNH encourages the practice of ‘doing nothing’ - for me, this is lying down with my eyes open towards the ceiling or outside, letting my mind wander and think through/about whatever it pleases. Depending on if the mind is meditative entering this period, I can sometimes (20% of the time) effortlessly remain with the breath as the mind goes about it’s wandering and playing, or be naturally aware of the thought processes as they occur.

My thoughts are often positive / productive, or nuetral / random. When hindrances clearly arise, my mind often effortlessly applies the three perceptions / characteristics and addresses the matter skillfully.

As a respite from longer hours of practice and/or study, I find it brings energy, refreshment, and space into the mind. I understand that humans and other species naturally engage in this kind of downtime as a means for the brain/mind to regulate itself or rest. This said, I worry it is contradictory to the dhamma.

Does the Buddha speak to the idea of letting the mind wander in a relaxed way, how to rest / relax, or if there is a time for letting go of effort or the application of will and just letting things be as long as they are not harmful / negative? My understanding is that the Buddha does not encourage this behavior, and rather encourages a vigilant mindfulness and right effort at all times. With this, I sense there is a fine balance between energy and effort. I’d be grateful for any thoughts and suttas on this matter.

Peace,
G

2 Likes

Hi @gmalensek , this is a nice illustrative sutta which tells a lot about balance between to much effort and to little: AN 6.55: Soṇasutta—Bhikkhu Sujato (suttacentral.net)

1 Like

That sounds like genuine good practice to me. I hope I can do that too more frequently

With respect, the notion of “doing nothing” can be contradictory to itself. While it may induce an attitude of not actively taking up specific thoughts, it is still an intention to ensure no specific action is taken. Therefore, being intention, it is still action that guides more specific choices to abstain, and is far from “doing nothing”. In the very least, development must come with transparency, and to intend “doing nothing” can be discrepant if it would permit the denial of the ongoing effects of fortifying intention in general, i.e. that attitude is very much determining the availability and feasibility of denial of action (“doing nothing”), and if repeatedly done, will undermine access to direct knowledge of how intention is responsible for direction and view. In short, the designation “doing nothing” induces an opaqueness, which may encourage an attitude that ignores the very intention that is responsible for producing it. However peaceful this opaqueness may be in the short-term, it can be detrimental to understanding of the four noble truths.

So, if one adopts this attitude they should never ignore its basis. On the contrary they should seek it out. They should always be aware of the act of “I’m sitting here to do nothing” as the container of the entire session. One broad act persists while more specific thoughts are left there to come and go. They are “left” there by choice on account of the broader intention to do so. There is doing involved here. The elephant in the meditation is the looming question of, “Why am I doing this at all?”, to which you should not answer until you come upon that very intention that has you sitting: “I’m sitting here to do nothing”. Then ask why.

Throughout the suttas there are many descriptions of things to be developed and recollected. Mindfulness of the body, for instance, is compared to a post/pillar in SN 35.247; as something that keeps the experience as a whole tethered to something that is to be recollected. All in all, there should never be an intention to obscure intention. In the very least, when we sit to contemplate we should make an effort to establish our reasons for even practicing at all, and also reflect on the very roots of Dhamma practice. The virtue that must be established as the basis for any progress whatsoever can be a source of non-regret, joy, etc. (AN 10.2).No meditation can be fruitful if there isn’t something set up; if there isn’t something to apply effort.

I guess my overall point here is that if you are going to sit, remember all the intentions that put you there to sit, and the ones that hold you there for the time being. There’s nothing wrong with sitting and not taking up thoughts, but this doesn’t wash away the broader intentions that guide your overall work. And if you intentions are clear and not ignored, it may beg the question of why “doing nothing” with those specific thoughts is even beneficial. Indeed, there is always a need for rest - in MN 19 even those three wholesome thoughts could tire the body. But beyond the need for occasional rest, is there any benefit to “doing nothing” if our virtue needs improvement? If our reasons for practicing haven’t been clarified? If we haven’t established any form of sense restraint? If we are taking up “doing nothing” just to benefit our everyday life and not necessarily understanding freedom from suffering?

Just some things to consider. I hope this helps. :slightly_smiling_face:

7 Likes

It always confounds me when people teach meditation simply as doing nothing. There is no activity in life where we can just do nothing and hope for results! An analogy I often use is driving a car, we can’t always be in cruise control mode, sooner or later we will need to brake or to take a turn, speed up or slow down. Meditation is a process and we need to respond appropriately to whatever is going on.

When I hear that people are just practising bare awareness or doing nothing for their one hour of practice a week I despair a little because they often spend it entirely in the grip of a hindrance or wandering to the past and future. Their progress will be very slow going this way. If folks have only been taught to do nothing and just watch, it’s as if they have checked out of their own practice and aren’t a part of it. These thoughts are coming from somewhere! So we need to be involved in our own practice.

There is a time for decompression from our daily life and just relaxing, but that alone is not meditation, though it might form the beginning part of our practice, an important stage of the process but not the whole thing… And there is certainly a time for doing nothing in meditation and just watching but that’s not all the time either.

The most important thing we need to be aware of is working with the 5 hindrances. This forms part of our Right Effort to prevent unarisen unwholesome states from arising and abandoning the arisen unwholesome states. And we must also cultivate the unarisen wholesome states (the enlightenment factors) and then maintain them.

As we get more skilled in meditation we develop understanding of what is needed at various times. We tune in rather than tune out.

There is a time for effort, a time for tranquilizing and a time for just watching what’s going on, according to the analogy of the goldsmith in the Nimitta Sutta:

It’s like when a goldsmith or a goldsmith’s apprentice prepares a forge, fires the crucible, picks up some gold with tongs and puts it in the crucible. From time to time they fan it, from time to time they sprinkle water on it, and from time to time they just watch over it. If they solely fanned it, the gold would likely be scorched. If they solely sprinkled water on it, the gold would likely cool down. If they solely watched over it, the gold would likely not be properly processed. But when that goldsmith fans it from time to time, sprinkles water on it from time to time, and watches over it from time to time, that gold becomes pliable, workable, and radiant, not brittle, and is ready to be worked. Then the goldsmith can successfully create any kind of ornament they want, whether a bracelet, earrings, a necklace, or a golden garland.

https://suttacentral.net/an3.102/en/sujato

Similarly in the Aggi Sutta working with the mind is compared to making a fire - sometimes when it is sluggish we need to act to make the fire rise up, or if we are restless, the fire is too hot and we need to act to cool it down. This is referring to the cultivation of the enlightenment factors.

…when the mind is sluggish, it’s the right time to develop the awakening factors of investigation of principles, energy, and rapture. Why is that? Because it’s easy to stimulate a sluggish mind with these things.

When the mind is restless, it’s the wrong time to develop the awakening factors of investigation of principles, energy, and rapture. Why is that? Because it’s hard to settle a restless mind with these things.

The full Sutta is very useful:
https://suttacentral.net/sn46.53/en/sujato

We see in the Two Types of Thought Sutta, the way the Bodhisatta worked with his mind, dividing his thoughts into 2 categories of wholesome and unwholesome, and analysing the drawbacks and advantages. This might seem cumbersome at first but the practice quickly becomes efficient and precise as we progress. The two similes of the cowherd are very clear and instructive: when the mind is straying into unskilful territory the cowherd needs to be active and restrain the cattle from munching on the grain, but when there is no grain to tempt the cattle, the cowherd can relax under a tree.

20 Likes

It seems the practice of ‘doing nothing’ is closely relevant to the notion of ‘emptiness’ in Early Buddhism.

I think I know what you mean by this but your statement might require more elucidation and some textual sources to be helpful to others.

The following book, The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism, by Choong Mun-keat, may be helpful:

1 Like

A sutta such as MN 121 describes the recognition of certain fields of perception as being empty of what is not there, and the recognition of what does remain within that discernment. Firstly, a village empty of people, then wilderness empty of the village, earth empty of wilderness, infinite space empty of earth, and so on, all the way to the experience empty of the defilements, and remaining is just a spec of discomfort dependent on the body and conditioned by life. I’m not sure if this description of emptiness supports doing nothing. Perhaps once it is thoroughly understood it is effortless, but I’m not sure it was developed by “doing nothing” altogether. That is just how I read that one particular sutta about emptiness. I’m curious about the source you posted and will try to look at it tonight. :slightly_smiling_face:

4 Likes

I look forward to reading your response to the source. :pray:

1 Like

AN 11.2: Cetanākaraṇīyasutta—Bhikkhu Sujato (suttacentral.net)

From what I understand from Ajahn Brahm’s teachings and the sutta above…

Yes, there’s a certain period of dealing with hindrances as they arise. Other than that, when they quieted down, doing anything, even “nothing” is giving energy to the doer, which stirs up the stillness. Just observe what’s happening, then energy goes to the knower (mindfulness). And more and more things are abandoned, one gets deeper into stillness.

Do nothing indeed can be misused to not even notice that thoughts are dragging one to past and future. So part of the preliminaries by Ajahn Brahm is to temporary drop the baggage of past and future while in meditation and just allow the mind to be in the present moment.

In AN11.2 above, basically, it seems that one only puts in the causes and make sure it’s there, and the results follows from the chains of causation, without needing for an act of will, or wish (doing something) for the results to arise.

For my own understanding too, doing nothing is a goal framework, no need to do anything is the method framework. Sounds similar, but feels quite different in meditation. Do nothing still brings one to the mindset of doing, left brain, thinking mode. No need to do anything shuts down that side, and allows the mind to settle down.

3 Likes

I lived with Ajahn Brahm for several years, and he actually teaches letting go, which is not the same as doing nothing, even though he will often talk of doing nothing… These days he spends a great deal of his guided meditation instructions getting people to relax, consciously letting go of tightness in the muscles and consciously calming the mind. These are activities of the mind, just like the visualisation of the baggage that you mention. There’s actually a lot of doing in his teaching that comes before doing nothing!

One of the complaints people often told me about Ajahn Brahm’s teachings is that he used to pitch his instructions of doing nothing at a stage of practice after the hindrances have been quietened and the mind was already on it’s way to samadhi, but he wasn’t helpful to them in understanding how to overcome the grosser interruptions of thoughts and hindrances. I think this is a result of people only hearing part of his teaching and of Ajahn maybe forgetting a beginner’s mind!

I thought someone might bring up AN11.2.
But it should be seen in the context of the samadhi sequence given in cases such as the anussatis, where a particular topic or theme is deliberately aroused by the meditator in order to gladden the mind, which then allows the sequence to unfold naturally. What is done before meditating and on the cushion is what causes the joy to arise. Remember in this Sutta, we are given the sequence for someone who is already “consummate” in virtue/ethical conduct, so already quite far along the path, not a beginner meditator! A beginner might do some silanussati, where they deliberately reflect on their good ethical conduct to arouse joy.

All of the anussatis, along with other reflective practices are quite think-y, requiring consciously turning things over in the mind, the aim of which is to encourage joy to arise, which then kicks off the sequence towards samadhi. The same is true for the Four Immeasurables.

None of these or any of the Buddha’s teachings say that we should do nothing. I think the bare awareness or do nothing instructions are useful at some stages of meditation but only practicing in this way will severely retard a person’s growth in developing their mind, because they will simply revert to their conditioned habit pattern and be lead by the defilements.

9 Likes

There certainly is.

Often with meditation there will be some hard work at the beginning, but be willing to bear that hard work knowing that it will lead you to experience some very beautiful and meaningful states. They will be well worth the effort! It is a law of nature that without effort one does not make progress. Whether one is a layperson or a monk, without effort one gets nowhere, in meditation or in anything.

From

7 Likes

Seeking nothing, ‘Just sitting’ 只管打坐 is doing nothing life style. Very good life indeed!

The goal of practice is to achieve samma samadhi, which at later parts starts to become a delicate balance.

There’s about three scopes of effort

  • Generally speaking the Buddha wants monks to practice sati-sampajanna 24/7 until your bones dry up and you’re walking all night and only going to sleep when there is no other option.
  • In early parts of practice, overthinking, even good thoughts, tires out the mind and makes one fall out of samadhi. Although one still must be vigilant with sati-sampajanna 24/7 not let unwholesome activity arise and fester.
  • In the end parts of samadhi, right before abhinna is about to arise, the mind is extremely sensitive and delicate and one can easily fall away from the very subtle forms of Samadhi, as MN 128 describes how easily Samadhi can fall away. There’s also other suttas that allude to how easily beings in high planes can die and fall to hell, just by getting angry for example.

So the deeper you go into Samadhi the harder it is to maintain and balance the very delicate states, this means by the time you reach nibbana, your mind is extremely sensitive, so sensitive that I don’t see how one could ever return to normal society. It would be like taking the queen of England and dropping her in a Colombian prison where prisoners skin eachother alive.

Another metaphor would be like in order to fly you need to run, and in order to run, you need to walk, and in order to walk you first need to crawl, and in order to crawl you need to sit up. It takes a lot of energy for a baby to learn how to walk, but it’s effortless for an adult. You’re not going to get to the subtle levels of Samadhi if you don’t have the foundation covered.

So no, the practice is not doing nothing, and doing nothing leads to nothing.

1 Like

My feeling with this is that practice evolves from an active approach to a more and more inactive stage in which the faculty of wisdom becomes more and more dominant. While wisdom becomes more and more dominant, unwholesome formations might arise but do not establish anymore. One sees those formations as anicca, dukkha and anatta while they arise.

I think there comes a time too that also habitual arising wholesome formations are seen that way. Any formation. Does the Buddha not teach to see any sankhara as not me, not myself, not mine, empty, an affliction, impermanent and not grasp at it and become involved in it?

So, i belief there comes a time when one does not care anymore about wholesome or unwholesome habitual formations but does not graps at anything as me and mine. That way mind does not evolve and establish temporary states, bhava, like being in a state of anger or being in a state of loving kindness etc.

Is this doing nothing?

But i have become very convinced that one must not fool oneself. One also must have this capacity, this mindfulness and this wisdom which, while formations arise, penetrates the nature of these formations.

Often formations are so strong, and we ourselves are so out of balance, that they weaken wisdom, blind the mind, and if one wants or not, one becomes hateful, greedy, irritated, etc. And maintaining such states and finding no way out of it, no way to deal with it, is not wise. One must also develop a sense that one really can work with all that darkness. That one has the power, the ability to work with it and not be all the time overwhelemd by it. Often i am still overwhelmed and in dislikes or something.

I also belief Buddha encourages that we do not have to be afraid of applying the mind, applying these faculties, applying also will-power. Will-power must also be developed. Nibbana is not being without will, i belief. It is being without the kind of will in like and dislike, the kind of will behind grasping and attachment but if one wants to go in jhana or cessation or travel to deva realms, or walk on water, teach the Dhamma one can.

Making an easy use of the faculties of the mind is, i belief, part of what enlightment also means. In a sutta Buddha compares this with gold. Pure gold is wieldy, applicable, easy to work with, pliant. So also the purified mind. But i think one still has to develop these faculties and powers and one does by really using them.

One of the greatest obstacles is, i belief, that one does not belief one has these faculties and powers, or is not allowed to make use of them because that would be sin or a-Dhamma or not Gods wish. The idea that one is powerless, helpless, without wisdom, without any strenght, without capacities.

Nicely said. :slightly_smiling_face:

A possible confusion in this thread is taking the phrase “doing nothing” out of the context, tradition, and training approach it comes from. Said by a Zen teacher it doesn’t mean what the phrase means in day-to-day life. It points to an experience informed by Dogen’s writings, the Soto school of Zen, the practice of Shikantaza. It is meant to point away from a grasping within your meditation practice. And it is a practice that also comes out of a belief that we all already have Buddha nature.

I can’t personally begin to do that tradition justice, so I’m not going to try to expand on it myself. If interested, I think Jundo Cohen’s book The Zen Master’s Dance: A Guide to Understanding Dogen and Who You Are in the Universe is a nice introduction to Dogen, his thinking, and Soto Zen practices.

7 Likes

Thank you everyone, I appreciate the thoughts and paths for further study.

1 Like

What exactly do you mean by “doing nothing”?

“this is lying down with my eyes open towards the ceiling or outside, letting my mind wander and think through/about whatever it pleases” “My thoughts are often positive / productive, or nuetral / random. When hindrances clearly arise, my mind often effortlessly applies the three perceptions / characteristics and addresses the matter skillfully.”