A Spiritual Practice of Doing Nothing
Some of us believe there are things spiritual life requires us to do. We do not have a spiritual practice of doing nothing.
We believe spiritual life is about how we behave, our actions, what we do. There are specific ways to put what we believe into practice. Even thinking or believing things is something we do.
Others of us see spiritual life as something we are or who we become. We believe people recognize spiritual life in us because of the kind of people we are. Even when we might not behave in particular ways spiritual life is working within us.
As a child, I believed spiritual life was primarily concerned with what I did. Spiritual life was about being good and sitting still. It seemed to have a lot to do with not annoying other people.
A lot of spiritual life apparently took place in our heads.
As I grew older and learned about spiritual life I was attracted to doing more than just being quiet. I believed spiritual life sparked my interest in justice and I worked to put it into practice.
The more I did to help people and pursue justice, it seemed, the more there was to do. Spiritual life, in my experience, was not particularly focused on getting things done.
The harder I worked to try to make a difference in the world, the less of a difference I seemed to make.
If spiritual life were all about doing, it did not seem to me we were getting much accomplished.
I began to wonder about the idea of spiritual life as a way of being.
The people who believed spiritual life was about being seemed to be happier than I was.
Do We Need to Choose Either Doing or Being?
The idea spiritual life might be about being and not doing did not inspire me. I was motivated to serve justice and make a difference in the world. It was a challenge for me to see how being could change the world more than doing.
I was also not particularly comfortable exploring the possibilities of being. The experience of being felt passive and resigned. At least when I was doing I was trying to accomplish something.
Eventually I arrived at a place where I hoped spiritual life was not a choice between doing or being. I was not clear on how they fit together for me, but I did not want them to be either/or choices.
It took me time to explore the question of doing or being.
My initial understanding was our being set the context and provided the framework for our doing. I assumed what we did grew out of who we were.
The question of doing or being was more complex and more challenging than I had assumed. The relationship between who we are and what we do is a network of factors.
I came to see spiritual life is not simply a matter of choosing either doing or being.
We are elusive, even to ourselves. It takes reflection to begin to comprehend why we do what we do and how we become who we are.
One truth which helped me sort out all I my insights was the idea of happiness.
My central question about spiritual life was why either doing or being did not help me find happiness. Neither focusing on doing nor on being seemed to help me feel happier.
When Do We Practice Doing Nothing?
Many of us seem to be caught up in our own expectations we need to be doing something. It is a challenge for us to take time to be still, to listen and pay attention, and to reflect on what we have already experienced.
We find it difficult, if not impossible, to practice doing nothing.
There seem to be many important things pulling us in different directions. We feel anxious and a little guilty when we feel ourselves doing nothing. Even when we are exhausted, on the verge of burnout, we are not comfortable doing nothing.
We are accustomed to letting our minds continue driving us toward getting things done.
Our lives are not a buffet at which we need to fill our plates and go back as many times as we can. There is no spiritual value to filling our schedules with as many commitments as we can for as long as we can.
Spiritual life is not about being tired all the time. There is nothing spiritual about feeling discouraged or disappointed because we see ourselves as not doing enough.
My practice of doing nothing gives me the gift of time for contemplation and reflection.
Our first step is recognizing how important it is for us to practice doing nothing.
Developing a Practice of Doing Nothing
Some of us have strong opinions about whether spiritual life is about doing or being.
We may not see the point of being without doing. Some of us get so caught up in doing we can lose sight of being.
I believe spiritual life draws us beyond either/or approaches. So much of spiritual life is about both/and.
It is a challenge for many of us to see beyond our own boundaries. We like to think we have thought things through and we understand how life should be. Life is about making wise choices and we have made ours.
In my experience spiritual life is all about helping us go beyond our own choices.
We like to define limits which help us feel comfortable and secure. Spiritual life is determined to show us what life is like beyond the limits we impose on ourselves.
There is more to life than choosing either doing or being. Spiritual life draws us into looking again and asks us What more do you see?
How will a practice of doing nothing shape our understanding of spiritual life today?
When was the last time we practiced doing nothing? When can we find an opportunity to practice this week?
[Image by joshme17]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual director in Southern California. He is a recovering assistant district attorney and associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is http://StrategicMonk.com and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.