Do Be Do Be Do

A new friend of mine has this on her Facebook page: “We’re human beings, not human doings.” This reminds me of Evelyn Underhill, whose admittedly Platonic approach to mysticism seeks to find the eternal world of being over and above the ever-changing world of becoming (or “doing”). I’m also reminded of the Buddhist notion that all things are impermanent — the world of becoming is also of necessity the world of change, of decay, of death. Finally, I am reminded of the theme of the Lay Associates retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit this past weekend: that contemplation, the contemplative life, is ultimately not something we do — like centering prayer or lectio divina — but is truly and finally simply something we are.

All this is true enough (although I chafe at the Platonic idea that being is somehow “higher” than doing). But I’m left with wondering: are we to concentrate so entirely on our being, that our doing simply gets ignored? This seems to me to lead to the heresy of quietism. Quietism, where we are so liberated from having to do anything that we end up doing… nothing. We end up reacting with hostility and anger at life’s demands on us. We become angry because we are so stressed out, and yet we refuse to take the steps to de-stress ourselves: steps that include, ironically enough, practices like meditation and centering prayer.

So once again I find myself sitting, next to Thomas Merton, in the belly of a paradox. Embracing the contemplative life means not having to do anything, but simply to be, in the present, awake, mindful. And embracing the contemplative life means making choices, which is the most fundamental thing we have to do. I, for one, have been noticing that my silent prayer seems to have hit a plateau: my patterns of distraction seem to be dancing around me in circles, and while I’m fairly disciplined at embracing the silence every morning, my vesper silence pretty much isn’t happening. So what am I to do? Yes, “do.” It seems that I have a choice: I can “be” happy or unhappy with where I am; if I choose to be happy, I don’t have to do anything — and nothing changes. But if I choose to believe that things can change for the better, than I have to do something about it (even if that “something” means simply to pray, to ask for help, to get out of my own way so that the Holy Spirit can act in my life). The risk of overemphasizing what I do, of course, is Pelagianism, the idea that my own well-being, wholeness, salvation, whatever you want to call it, is entirely up to me and fully within my ability to achieve. But the other risk, as I’ve pointed out, is quietism: sitting around, doing nothing, simply being whatever I am, passive and convinced that everything is perfect just as it is and I need to change nothing. I’m not very interested in being either a Pelagian or a quietest. So I’m left in the paradox, trusting that the contemplative life is not about what I do, and yet doing what I think needs to be done (in my case, considering options like a class on meditation or Shambhala training or something along those lines).

To embrace the contemplative life, there is nothing we need to do. And to be a contemplative, there is no limit to what we will be asked to do. Find the nonduality in this one, and you’ll be well on your way…

This about sums it all up...

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Carol

    I know, I know! Something that helps me, occasionally, is the thought that out of that Be-ing, stillness, or Presence (whatever one calls it), mindful, loving action is more likely to arise.

  • http://none Bill Thomas

    Upon reading your post, I thought ‘Never contest with a man of the forest in the jungles of Brazil’
    Thank you.

  • Kevin Murphy

    Wonderful column, Carl. But one point of order: Didn’t Pelagius believe that once grace had first been conferred, humans were then responsible for their salvation; that we didn’t have to repeatedly seek grace after we already had that gift. That’s my understanding of him at least.

    • Carl McColman

      Kevin, I knew someone was gonna bust my chops over Pelagius! I’m just referring to Pelagianism-the-heresy, which may or may not have anything to do with the actual teachings of Pelagius (I rather am of the opinion that Pelagius was framed). Furthermore, I’m really using both “Pelagianism” and “Quietism” simply as markers to identify the potential distortions that can arise either from overemphasizing the “doing” (Pelagianism) or, conversely, underemphasizing it (Quietism). So my apologies to the extent that I’m using either of these terms in an overly simplistic way.

  • Roy Coker

    I hope you will remember to bring some of this topic up at the next Atlanta Christian Mysticism Meetup. It seems to fit right into the topic of discussion. I am reminded of the statement Ram Dass made about ‘Be here now”. I always felt he meant more than just being a meditative “Vegetable”. Sort of “But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” ~ James 2:18

  • Carl Gregg

    I’m intrigued by Andrew Cohen’s experimentation with 10-day “Being” Retreats (focused on cultivating awareness of the present moment) followed immediately by 10-day “Becoming” Retreats (focused on cultivating awareness of what he called the “eros” or “evolutionary impulse” — that is, the force that causes evolution/emergence). See

    Cohen apparently is publishing a book soon as well:

  • Ali

    (So first – it took me a second to get the title of this post…. but then I realized that it is AWESOME! :) And I’ll tell you why it’s extra awesome: it reminds me of the Druid idea of the Song of the World and the soul-song of each being or creature within the world. In such a soul-song, the music is in the movement, in the change, in the “activity” of the melody, so to speak. Yet there is also presence and being-ness in that song, as there can be in all great art, the opening into stillness and silence, the very silence that the melody itself implies and relies on, and arises from, and dances with…


    Your post reminds me of the distinction in Taoism between inaction and nonaction, and the saying, “Through nonaction, all action is accomplished.” Nonaction is not merely inaction or quietism, it’s that way of being that is grounded in Presence while recognizing that an essential aspect of Presence is growth, change and activity. That’s one reason I’ve always liked Catholicism – the emphasis on both grace and work as essential, and the acknowledgement that this is, to some extent, a kind of paradox that can’t necessarily be reasoned through… but must be lived and grappled with on a daily basis.

    For my part, I find that this winter has been far too full of activity and planning and doing, between wedding plans and a new job and step kids and holidays…. The more “productive” I seem to be, the less creative I’ve come to feel. And I think that’s another essential component. If we are made in the image of Spirit, and (as Christians believe) that Spirit is a Creator God, then an essential part of ourselves in our creativity. In my experience, creativity itself is not merely productivity and action, but it’s also clearly not passivity and inaction. There is the paradox of being and doing at the heart of creativity itself. I find that…. satisfying. :)


  • Ann

    There is a tide which ebbs and flows in our spiritual lives as well as our emotional lives and in the physical world. When our spiritual life seems unproductive and meaningless, we do not have to “do” anything. We just wait, trusting that although in our conscious experience everything seems pointless, underneath, in the deep, dark areas of the unconscious, great work is being accomplished.

  • Christopher Marcus

    In my life I’ve found that the distinction between ‘doing’ and ‘being’ is mostly semantic. I try to silence my thoughts as much as possible during the day. The thoughts that I need to have, I try to ‘slow down’ as much as possible. In doing so I feel that I am most connected to a ‘deeper me’ – the ‘me’ that I feel is ultimately closest to God/The One/Divinity. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood the whole problem you describe but I’m not that well-versed in the theoretical perspectives concerning it, so forgive me if I shoot beside the mark.

    In that way I think I am trying to, er, do what Ali describes so eloquently: “Nonaction is not merely inaction or quietism, it’s that way of being that is grounded in Presence while recognizing that an essential aspect of Presence is growth, change and activity”.

  • Al Jordan

    Well said, Christopher. “A way of being grounded in Presence” Action and non action become one.

  • anthony

    Underhill was more platonic in her early works, but by the time she wrote her later works and her last one “Worship” she was very incarnational. It would seem her years seeking direction from Von Hugel helped here find a whole new dimension and depth to everyday mysticism.