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Breaking Free: Doing Nothing and Being Nobody


Today outside your prison I stand
and rattle my walking stick: Prisoners, listen;
you have relatives outside. And there are
thousands of ways to escape.

(William Stafford, excerpt from “A Message from the Wanderer”)

I have recently joined a small group of mindfulness teachers who are offering “mindful half-hours” online to environmental activists. Not surprisingly, some of them are skeptical of meditation, which seems to them at odds with the urgency for actively resisting the continued destruction of our planetary eco-system. To them, meditation seems dangerously passive—a cop-out and a shirking of responsibility. But there are a growing number of these peaceful environmental warriors of diverse background, gender, color, and age, who realize that mindfulness meditation is a good way to build and maintain a “resilience to resist,” preventing burn-out, enhancing non-violence, and some of them join us for our weekly Zoom calls.

After a guided meditation, we engage in a shared exploration of mindfulness-related themes, and this week’s topic was “Being versus Doing.” One young woman, who had been convicted for some non-violent direct action and had spent a few weeks in prison, shared her experience in a moving and thought-provoking way. By default, being in prison means that your freedom of movement is taken away or severely curtailed. As someone already familiar with mindfulness approaches, she deliberately cultivated acceptance of not being in control, particularly with regard to the high levels of noise. This gave her a much-needed sense of inner potency or choice. She also compensated for the lack of seeing anything green and growing from her prison cell by using the power of her imagination to create or remember inspiring inner landscapes.

I have not been incarcerated myself, but I know the feeling of imprisonment, of having less agency than I would like, whether due to outer or inner forces. Being imprisoned is a good metaphor for feeling stuck, for going round in circles at the mercy of fretful states of mind that curtail the possibility for thinking and behaving freely and creatively.

For the former prisoner and now highly regarded meditation teacher Fleet Maull, doing time was a great turning point in his life: from being caught up with dealing in illegal drugs to helping a great many people in prisons. During the years of serving his sentence and since his release, Maull taught inmates and staff how to deal effectively with stress and loss, and how to gain self-respect through meditation. When he was convicted, Maull also already knew how to meditate and used any available space within this hellish environment—before he eventually had the luxury of a single cell—to do his sitting practice: the top of a bunk bed in a dormitory shared by dozens of inmates or a broom cupboard. He saw more and more clearly how aversion arose, and when he managed to work with it in his meditation, “there was just a sort of curiosity about the energy of the chaos and the noise in the environment.” (Sounds True)

Maull says his fellow inmates either revved up anger and resentment or just wanted to “numb out, sleep away their time.” Doesn’t that sound familiar? Perhaps in less extreme ways—even as apparently free people and even as people with some experience of mindful ways of living—we can easily become caught up in the polar energies of a ceaseless drivenness; a kind of fight with the world and with circumstances and with the desire to distract ourselves and be unconscious, for example by succumbing to aimless online browsing. If we were to sit down to meditate, or simply stop and do nothing for a while, our restlessness and/or drowsiness would initially be experienced in a more intense way—and sometimes we just don’t want to go there. We are in drive mode, geared toward action, and the idea of suddenly breaking our stride leads to an uncomfortable experience of friction. It might reveal aspects of ourselves with which we feel uneasy: difficult feelings and urges, or a lack of purpose that we’d rather keep in the shadows.

So we make our excuses. We may proclaim, like those environmental activists, that there is just too much to do. And beneath that, there may be a fear of what might happen if we don’t keep going; a fear that things might fall apart. Perhaps there is some sense of identity bound up with being busy, with being seen to be active and successful. We may hear the harsh voice of an inner taskmaster relentlessly nudging us on—it would be shameful to do what looks like nothing. Or maybe, hooked to our digital devices, as many of us are, we crave continuous stimulation and are afraid to be bored.

Boredom is a particularly interesting topic. It is mind-opening to see that most animals apparently spend most of their time doing nothing at all. In a BBC radio program called Lazy Ants and the Power of Doing Nothing, we hear that in a seemingly busy anthill or bee colony, almost half the population don’t do anything or are moving about without any obvious purpose. Animals have a lot of down time, which is necessary for their well-being. We humans easily feel bored with doing nothing. We crave the dopamine hits of novelty, but, paradoxically, according to the presenters of this radio show, experiencing boredom is an essential element in achieving a true sense of satisfaction. Boredom arises when we are searching for neural stimulation and not receiving it. And this is actually a useful feeling, psychology lecturer Dr Sandi Mann declares:

In trying to avoid boredom, we miss out on its benefits. When we’re bored, we daydream, and that has been linked to creativity. The parts of our brain that allow us to do this mind wandering are what neurologists call The Default Mode Network. And it only lights up when we stop doing everything else. 


To some extent, I find this to be true: when I relax the drive to get things done, to finish a piece of writing, and just stare at the clouds or go for a walk or just get up and aimlessly jiggle about a bit, ideas come to me and I look at things afresh.

Doing Nothing as a meditation is a bit different, though, and figuring out exactly how is an ongoing area of enquiry for me. In some traditional mindfulness teachings, mind-wandering is thought of as a “hindrance” to be worked with by repeatedly and, eventually, continuously focusing on an object such as the breath. This can easily lead to tension and a sense of failure as it is actually a very difficult thing to do, particularly in our high-stimulus, low-attention-span environments. So a representation of mind-wandering as an acceptable or even desirable state could be embraced with a welcome sense of relief. My impression is that “just sitting” types of meditations that invite us to simply dwell in the moment without altering our experience quickly become the practice of choice among meditators of some experience. We don’t want to constantly have to improve ourselves, we want to rest in the moment with a sense that there is nothing wrong with us; that the “default” state is actually fine.

However, unless we have learned how to stay present and lucid in a relaxed sort of way, there is a drawback to the daydreaming, mind-wandering state: it continuously rebuilds and stabilizes the sense of a familiar “me.” We drift into the past and into the future and reaffirm the “me” that is trying to stay on top of things. And while there are some advantages to operating in this way, it is the cause of much suffering. We take things personally, we feel separate from others and alienated from the natural world. Seeing through the illusory polarity of self/other is seen as liberating by seekers of all spiritual traditions and, increasingly, by modern scientists. So how can we enjoy a relaxed stance of Non-Doing in meditation, without “selfing?”

It requires the long-term honing of our awareness skills and an attitude of curiosity. There are no easy answers, just an ongoing journey of playful discovery. Here are a couple of suggestions of positive habits that have supported me on my journey:

• Allow for some lulls in your schedule, make time to daydream, to do nothing, to be useless. And leave your mobile phone alone.

• Gently take in when you feel naturally poised between Doing and Being, in the easy grace of wakeful relaxation, or relaxed wakefulness. Maybe it happens when you are absorbed in sewing on a button or watching an animal play. Maybe it happens more often than you think—there are many opportunities to let experience be known in kind awareness, without grasping at it.

• At the beginning of a meditation, before engaging in that dance of fine-tuning awareness, just relax. I often use a metaphor that somehow circumnavigates the busy thinking mind and connects in a direct, visceral way with the feel of relaxation. I imagine I have just stepped through the door of a prison into freedom. Or I have finally arrived at my holiday destination. Or, more prosaically, I have crossed everything off my to-do list; everything that needs doing has been done.

• And finally, remember that “you have relatives outside,” as William Stafford says in his poem. You are not alone and how you spend your time matters to others too.

See more

Waking up in Prison (Sounds True)
Lazy Ants and the Power of Doing Nothing (BBC)

Related features from BDG

For the Earth: Buddhist Environmental Thought and Activism
Nyanaponika Thera: Buddhist Monk and British Prisoner of War
Buddhist Voices in the Climate Crisis: Earth Words and Watershed Activism
Cuong Lu’s The Buddha in Jail: 52 Vignettes on Discovering Freedom and Happiness Within
Eco-activism as Buddhist Practice
Ripples in the Pond
Buddhistdoor View: Prisons and Buddhists

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Nietzsche Says
Nietzsche Says
1 year ago

I didn’t have to read too much of the article to figure out the author was a woke idiot. First off, there is no such thing as “mindfulness”. Either you reach enlightenment or you do not. When I read about the “eco-system” or an author feels obligated to mention “people of diverse backgrounds, gender, color, etc.., I can spot a social justice lunatic. Buddhism is about self help. Many have attempted to put words in the Buddha’s mouth for their own selfish, often misguided reasons. This author needs to go back to the works of the Buddha and see what he actually said and meant. No more of this social justice gas lighting.