Why it’s so hard to “just do nothing”

“Just do nothing.”

What a confusing instruction.

(Meditation teachers love to give this instruction, as do music teachers.)

Sometimes it takes the form of “trust yourself”, “go with the flow”, “let it happen”, “get out of your own way”, or “stop overthinking”. But, it’s always the same thing.

The confusion comes up when you try following this instruction, and you notice that your own actions fit into one of three categories:

  1. Things you feel like you’re “doing”.

  2. Things that seem to be happening on their own.

  3. Things where you aren’t quite sure if you’re the one doing them or not.

Categories 1 and 2 are no problem. If you clearly feel like you’re doing the thing, you can easily stop doing it. And, if it seems to be happening on its own, you don’t need to stop doing it.

Category 3, however, is another story.

First of all (spoiler alert!), no one’s home. There’s no “you” to begin with. So, that should be a clue that this is a…weird…problem.

Still, those category 3 actions can be maddeningly frustrating. It might seem like:

  • You intended to do something, and it didn’t happen.

  • You intended not to do something, and it happened.

  • You intended to observe yourself doing it, and you got distracted in the middle.

  • The act of observing the action changes the action.

  • The harder you try to observe it, the more it changes.

  • The action keeps changing in subtle ways that always seem to be slightly outside of your intellectual grasp.

  • Doing the action causes more problems than not doing it.

  • Not doing the action causes more problems than doing it.

Second of all, this is progress. You’re coming to terms with the paradoxes surrounding your sense of agency and intention. So, you should celebrate that.

Here are a few things to try:

  1. Let your body do the thing, and observe how much of it is actually done by natural physical forces (gravity, inertia, etc.), not by “you”.

  2. Let your body do the thing, and observe how much of it is actually done by your desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain, not by “you”.

  3. Force yourself not to do the thing, and notice what happens.

  4. Refrain from making any decision about whether you’ll do the thing, and instead whine and complain about how frustrating it is.

Practice all of these.

Meditation class is tonight, Wednesday, December 30, at 9:00 PM EST.

Also, there will be a class tomorrow, Thursday, December 31, at 3:00 PM EST.

There will be no class on Sunday.

Remember: you can’t just read about this stuff. You have to practice it. That means you must spend hours and hours meditating. If you come to the class, that’s some time right there that is guaranteed to be well-spent.


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