The other day I was driving and was very upset about something. My mind was racing. There was this situation. And that situation. And this perceived unfairness and this intolerable status quo.
The voice in my head was asking me the usual questions:
What do you think of this?
Why is this happening
What does it mean?
What are you going to do about it?
Then–and I don’t say this lightly–a remarkable thing happened. I can’t take credit for what transpired because I have no idea where it came from. But what passed through my mind as an answer to those questions was this:
“What if I think nothing at all? What if I did nothing at all?”
It’s never happened to me before. That it was even an option was something I’d never even considered before. But as soon as I did, it was freeing and clear.
“Tao is in the emptiness,” Zhuang Zhou once said. “Emptiness is the fast of the mind.”
It’s worth making a distinction here between taking a drug or turning on the TV and deciding to stop thinking about something. In the first two scenarios, you’re leaving the present moment for a fictional world or the numbness of another. You’re really just hitting the pause button on those feelings, which is not the point. Instead, it’s to simply exist–without questioning, without fighting, without anxiety.
It was not unlike what happens when you’re meditating and a distraction comes into your mind. Jon Kabat Zinn talks about seeing these passing thoughts as clouds floating by. You just let them. That’s what I did. I don’t know how, but I did.
As it would happen, my situation resolved itself and I felt much better–my thoughts had had no impact except for the brief moment they made me miserable.
But for some reason that idea–emptiness, stillness, nothing–is very terrifying.
I think it’s because we feel like we are supposed to be doing something. The other day my wife suggested we get in the pool. I was in for about three minutes before I started getting antsy. What are we going to swim laps or something, I asked? (Because I thought hey, we’re here, I might as well exercise. Exercise is important. Why aren’t we exercising?) No, she said, we’re going to be in the pool.
And we so feel the need to always be doing that when we can’t take physical action, we’ll compensate by thinking incessantly. We obsess just as hard as we would if we were exercising or attempting to create something–looking for an angle, evaluating our feelings, extrapolating out what this will mean if it goes on forever and ever.
If only we could remind ourselves that not everyone feels this way. Especially other animals.
Every once in a while, I’ll go outside and catch my goats just standing there, staring at a wall or fence. They could be facing any direction in their enclosure or doing any number things but instead they’re just head first at big blank nothing, chewing like it’s totally normal. Are they stupid or something?
It occurred to me recently that they aren’t actually doing nothing. They’re being goats. They’re not supposed to do anything but be alive. Standing there is their job. It’s their purpose.
This is what people mean by that way-too-easy to dismiss cliche: Human being, not human doing.
Of course, we’ve evolved. We’re not livestock. We have certain talents it’s a shame to waste. But still, we’re animals and only marginally different than the others. Being born that way does burden you with the same fate as Sisyphus. That’s a choice.
In the Workaholics Anonymous Book of Recovery, the authors write:
“We are learning that the praise we get from others, our desire to get ‘lost’ in our frantic behavior, our sick sense of needing to avoid and accomplish goals, are all processes we use to escape the reality that we cannot completely control our life or our experience.”
That’s what it is though, a sick sense. That we have to be acting, thinking, working, moving, thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking and most of all thinking. And then these thoughts drive us to take actions and the cycle begins again.
Of course you’re exhausted. Of course you’re mad at other people. You’ve lapped them on this issue three or four times now. Your mind has been racing. You made it worse.
But what if you tried it differently. What if, you follow that old joke:
Don’t just do something. Stand there!
It applies to the thoughts racing through your head too.
Don’t just think something. Be here!
You, being alive, that’s all you’re actually obligated to do. That’s what your relationships require (as opposed to money or anything else–just you). The rest is extra.
It’s important, don’t get me wrong. Don’t abandon your creativity, your work ethic, your purpose. But you don’t have to make yourself miserable in the pursuit of it. Don’t let it strip you of the pleasure of enjoying the little moments in life.
Try to be instead of do. Try doing nothing at all.
See what happens. You might be surprised.