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Meditation - Do Nothing

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“Do Nothing”, or “Effortless” is a concept originated from Taoism more than two thousand years ago in China. Inspired by this concept, many Chinese people have found the true meaning of their day-to-day life, and many ancient emperors have used it as a secret weapon of ruling their countries. But what exactly is “Do Nothing”? Everyone’s interpretation might be different, but one thing in common is that very few people will literally interpret it as doing nothing. The reason for this is that, first, such an interpretation seems too superficial, and second, it is not aligned with the real life experience at all. From a very young age, we worked hard to study at schools, to find a decent job, to start a family, and to be promoted at work. All these “achievements” need a lot of effort instead of doing nothing. Thus, a well-accepted interpretation is that human behavior should obey the laws of nature, or Tao, as Laozi mentioned in his book. But is it true that nothing in this world can be done without doing anything? The answer is false, because at least one thing can be done by doing nothing, and that is meditation. On the other hand, it is most likely that the ancient sages got this counterintuitive idea from meditation and applied it to other fields like the politics and the everyday life.

Before we jump into the meditation topic, let’s look at how human body works. Human body activities can be divided into two big categories. Some activities are controlled by consciousness, such as the movement of the limbs, brain thinking, and so on. The other activities do not require the control of the consciousness, such as heartbeat, breathing, and the automatic function of all the internal organs. In fact, the so-called automatic function is also controlled by the brain, but only by a different part of the brain. We might as well call these two parts of the brain the “conscious brain” and the “nonconscious brain” respectively. When people are awake, the body is controlled by both the conscious brain and the nonconscious brain, but because of the domination of the conscious brain, we seem unable to perceive the existence of the nonconscious brain. This state, dominated by the conscious brain, can be called the “effort world”. After falling asleep, we lose consciousness and the body is completely taken over by the nonconscious brain. This state, dominated by the nonconscious brain, can be called the “effortless world”.

Note that the “effortless” here refers to the inaction of the conscious brain, but at the same time, the nonconscious brain starts working in full capacity – dropping heart rate, lowering blood pressure, slowing down breathing, making limbs “paralyzed”, relaxing muscles, generating growth hormone, renewing skin cells, repairing immune cells, consolidating memory, etc. However, because people lose consciousness after falling asleep, we are not able to experience any of these changes during sleep. As we pointed out in the previous article, Awake Sleep, the essence of meditation is to put the body into sleep while keeping the mind awake. That is to say, the only difference between meditation and sleep is that we lose consciousness during sleep but we remain conscious in meditation. And because of this, meditation gives us the opportunity to experience the magical world of effortlessness. However, while we remain conscious, we must exclude any control of the conscious brain over the human body, because once consciousness is involved in any body activity, even a little bit, it will take us back to the world of effort immediately.

One special body activity which can be controlled by both the conscious brain and the nonconscious brain is breathing. In other words, you can control how fast and how slow you are breathing. But when you don’t pay attention to it, the breathing won’t stop either. In fact, it will adjust by itself without any problem. Because of this, the ancient people treated breathing as a bridge from the “effort world” to the “effortless world” and came up with a meditation technique called “observe the breathing”. This technique works great, but for beginners, a common mistake is often made when using this technique without knowing how to observe correctly. When we are not observing our breathing, everything is going well; but once we start observing the breathing, the conscious brain will try to take over the control. It may adjust the length of breathing, it may even adjust the interval between the inhale and the exhale. This will cause more and more chaos until it reaches a point where we can’t breathe at all and have to start all over again. So what is the right way to observe? Very simple, we just need to observe our breathing from the perspective of a bystander. In other words, regardless of whether the current breathing is fast or slow, long or short, do not make any intervention with our conscious brain. We have to trust our nonconscious brain that it can take care of the breathing by itself, just like it takes care of the automatic function of other internal organs in our body. As a matter of fact, as long as the conscious brain does not interfere, everything will run perfectly under the control of the nonconscious brain alone.

Another common misconception for most beginners is that meditation is to empty our mind so we should not be thinking at all during meditation. In fact, either thinking or forcing yourself not to think, is an attempt to use the conscious brain to control the mind. And the purpose of meditation is to let the conscious brain give up all the control over our body and the mind. As a result, either thinking or not thinking is the opposite way to that goal. So, should we think or not during meditation? The answer is yes and no. It sounds contradictory, but actually it is very simple to achieve. Just like observing the breathing, we need to observe our own thinking from the perspective of a bystander, so that the thoughts in our mind can come and go freely. Never try to stop any thought from coming out, and at the same time, don’t let your mind go with any of the thoughts either, just observe. In fact, as the body falls asleep more and more deeply, there will be fewer and fewer thoughts, and it will eventually reach a state where there is no thought at all. But this is the result of meditation, not the premise of meditation, so don’t get them reversed.

So far we have seen at least 3 different meditation techniques. We just talked about 2 of them, “observe the breathing” and “observe the thoughts”. We also talked about “observe the body sensations” in the previous article. Beside these 3, there are many other meditation techniques as well. But if you look at them carefully, you will find out that most of them, if not all, have one thing in common which is to “observe” something. This is not a coincidence. As the matter of fact,  observing is the first step of giving up control. Let’s look at an interesting real life example and you will understand why. When parents take their young kid to the playground for the first a couple of times, they tend to follow the kid everywhere no matter the kid is on the slide or in the swing. They don’t want their kid to have any accident and this is the only way they feel everything is under their control although it is really a tiring job after some time. But when the kid becomes older and more independent, the parents will not follow the kid anymore. Instead, they will sit on the benches outside of the playground and watch the kid remotely and attentively. As you can see, this is the first step for the parents to give up the control of their kid. When the kid grows even bigger and can take care some of the matters by herself or himself, the parents will stop watching their kid constantly. Instead, they will start swiping the phone or even leaving the bench to the coffee shop nearby to get a cup of drink for themselves. At the moment, they totally give up the control of their kid and let the kid play freely and independently. And only at this time, it is the best time for both the kid and the parents because the former gets out of the bondage and the latter finds the peace. Most importantly, from the parents’ perspective, it seems like they don’t really need to do anything or make any effort to get into this win-win situation, all they need to do is to trust their kid, trust her or him that she or he can take care of herself or himself.

Similarly, during meditation, we don’t need to make any effort. To be exact, we can’t make any effort because any “effort” will make us fail to cross the bridge between the “effort world” and the “effortless world”. If there’s anything we need to do during meditation, it is to keep our body still, which is also doing nothing at the end of the day. As for the observation of breathing, thinking, and even body sensations during meditation, they are just some handy tools we can utilize on the way to the “effortless world”. As we saw from the example above, they are the first steps of giving up control of our conscious brain. As we are getting closer and closer to the “effortless world”, even the “observations” themselves need to be abandoned, as they have become the last obstacles to enter the “effortless world”. Only when we put aside everything, abandon all “efforts”, and really “do nothing”, can we go beyond our familiar “effort world”, and enter the unknown “effortless world”.  And only at this point, we will transcend the limitations of the body and the mind to experience the ultimate truth. Meditation is a long journey, no hurry, no expectation, the only thing we should do and the only thing we can do is to sit still, surrender everything else to the Tao, the Dharma, the God, … whatever you call it. 

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