Zen: The art of doing nothing this Christmas

By John Brant | 12th December 2017
Zen art of doing nothing to cope with stress, standing on a mountain Albir Spain Europe

For many people, this time of year is a constant stream of parties and fun! Of course, the season has challenges too – as those who suffer from cold weather, poor health, poor finances or unreasonable family expectations will tell you. If you find coping with stress at this time of year a challenge or tend to get carried away with the excess of party season, then a small dose of ancient Zen wisdom could be just what the doctor ordered.

Zen teachings suggest that “doing nothing” is a way to avoid suffering or cope with stress. This article examines the Zen concept of “doing nothing” and examines what it really means.

Firstly, a Zen anecdote: Doing nothing

“Three friends were walking along a road when they become aware of a man standing on a nearby hill. They started talking about the man, wondering what he was doing there. One of them said, `He must be waiting for his friends. He must have gone for a walk and his friends are left behind, so he is waiting for them to come.’

One of the friends didn’t agree `You are not correct, because normally if a person waits for someone, sometimes he will look backwards. But he is not looking backwards at all. So my assumption is this — that he is not waiting for anyone. Rather, he must have lost his cow. Evening is coming near, and the sun is setting, and soon it will be dark, so he is looking for his cow. He is standing there on the hilltop, and looking for where the cow is in the forest.’

The third one said, `This cannot be right, because he is standing so silently, not moving at all, and it seems that he is not looking at all; his eyes are closed. He must be in prayer. He is not looking for any lost cow or waiting for some friends who have been left behind.;’

They couldn’t decide and agreed, `We must go to the top of the hill and ask the man himself what he is doing.’

So they reached the man on the hill. The first one said, `Are you waiting for your friends who are left behind to come?’ The man opened his eyes and said, `I am not waiting for anyone. And I have neither friends nor enemies to wait for.’ He closed his eyes again. The other one said, `Then I must be right. Are you looking for your cow which is lost in the forest?’ He said, `No, I am not looking for anyone — for any cow or anyone. I am not interested in anything except myself.’ So the third one said, `Then certainly, definitely, you are doing some prayer or some meditation.’ The man opened his eyes and said, `I am not doing anything at all. I am just being here.”

The Zen art of non-doing is subtle. It sounds a bit like sitting around and wasting time. However, if you look deeper into the teachings the Zen art of non-doing becomes the art of letting things be done. The key is the central concept of who is the doer. When you are next walking down the road, investigate and examine, who is doing the walking? Is there really anyone there doing the walking or is the walking being done by itself. If we watch our breath, who is doing the breathing or is the breathing being done by itself. When we let go of the identification of the self-conscious “me” doing things we go into a state of natural flow. Zen says let it flow and don’t worry! Do without thinking. Go with the flow and be spontaneous with it.

Balance doing and having

When we do “too much” without reward we feel resentment. When we receive “too much” without the work we can get infatuated or addicted. In other words, whenever we perceive we are out of a fair exchange between doing and having, we get emotional. Equally, when we perceive that we are rewarded fairly for what we do, we are more likely to get into flow states. The emotional reaction when our perception is out of balance acts to re-enforce a narrow sense of self (the conscious “I”).

In addition, in a state of flow, you cannot become possessive or attached to the rewards. In other words, if you are in the state of non-doing, your stress disappears too. In fact, when “you” do not do or have anything then the only thing left is the presence of your being.

There is nothing “wrong”!

Most of us spend our lives trying to make things better or make a difference. Some of us seek something called “happiness”. Zen teachings suggest reconsidering these goals. The art of non-doing implies there is no need to change the way things are; there is nothing “wrong”. A Zen Master might say that if things have worked just fine before you were born why is that different now that you are here! Things are fine as they are – there is nothing “I” have to do about it!

Stress is normally created by the notion that there is something wrong and that “I” should do something about it. In contrast, Zen looks like it is teaching us to take no responsibility for anything! However, this is a misinterpretation. What we are being encouraged to do is to tap into our inner intelligence, awareness or wisdom which belongs outside the narrow “I” of who we think we are. Some people call this ability of staying in the flow as “tapping into source”.

Take a look at nature

Grass does not strive to grow, it just grows. Grass seeds know what they are meant for – there is no need for them to try and be something else. In the same way, stress dissolves in our lives when we discover that there is no need to strive to be anything other than ourselves. The best way to be ourselves is to tap into our inner wisdom and allow any resentments or infatuations to dissolve.

Here are a couple of brief questions which we use are part of our meditation workshops at the retreat:

  • In what areas of my life do I need to strive less and allow things to be as they are?
  • How do I work with the part of me that thinks that striving is necessary for happiness?

Zen “Zazen” Meditation

Most forms of meditation have an object to focus on and therefore require some level of mind “concentration”. However, mind concentration techniques tend to strengthen the “I” being dropped in Zen. Zen therefore has a special type of meditation technique called Zazen meditation where the mind has no object at all.

The aim of zazen is just sitting – that is, suspending all judgmental thinking and letting words, ideas, images and thoughts pass by without getting involved in them. Although it can be difficult to sit and do nothing with the mind, if this form of meditation is practiced and mastered, it can help you master the art of non-doing. Why not give Zazen meditation a go and have a true Zen experience!

Come to Relax and Rejuvenate at La Crisalida Retreats

If you know you need to let go of stress, we have a program of activities to help you to relax and rejuvenate at La Crisalida. In addition, to yoga and many other activities, the program includes workshops on mindfulness and short meditation sessions on most mornings of the week.

Best of luck with doing nothing this Christmas Season!

Headshot of John Brant - Retreat Founder at La Crisalida Retreats
John Brant

John is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. He leads our life makeover programme as well as overseeing the retreats.

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