website design software

Doing Nothing

Wittgenstein said that philosophy leaves everything just as it found it. And in a way that same thing could be said about this practice. We're not here to perfect ourselves, to become something new or radically different - we're here simply to be ourselves. We practice leaving ourselves alone and just being this moment.
But leaving everything alone turns out not to be so easy, either in Zen practice or in philosophy. In philosophy there is always the craving after some form of certainty, a desire to find a once-and - or-all basis of understanding the world. And that has led to the pursuit of one sort of foundation or another for our knowledge - something like pure reason or logic that we imagine is somehow more solid and less subject to doubt that our ordinary day to day experience. Wittgenstein himself started out trying to define everything that could logically be stated - about everything else, he famously said, we should remain silent. But by the end of his life he came to conclude that there was no place to stand outside of our life, outside our language, outside our ordinary certainty about the existence of the world and cause and effect and so on, that could provide more logical or philosophical certainty than we already possess. But it took him a lifetime to arrive at that place of leaving everything just as he found it.
In this practice, leaving everything alone isn't such a simple matter either. And we might sum up the problem with the single word: the "unconscious". The unconscious is the name we give to all the organizing of experience that goes on behind the scenes of consciousness, outside of our moment to moment awareness. Most of the time, we have no idea what our unconscious organizing principles are all about. They disappear into what we call common sense or an unstated view about the world or other people. For instance an unexamined assumption that the world is basically a dangerous place and you must always be or your guard. Or that when something goes wrong, it's probably my fault. Or if only I could find love or become enlightened, my life would be happy once and for all.
So when we think we're just sitting here, doing nothing in particular, just paying attention to the moment, nonetheless there are all sorts of ways in which we are subtly shaping our experience into some background narrative or explanation. Now we can go on for a long time, thinking that we`re "just sitting," but really never digging down those underlying core beliefs. There's a Japanese word for that kind of lackadaisical or complacent attitude - they call it buji Zen. We might translate it as "Alfred E. Neumann Zen!" What, me worry? What's the problem? I'm just sitting.
Now, we may all fall into that complacency in our sitting from time to time, but if we're honest, life is continually offering us reminders to wake up and go deeper. What are those reminders? Anger. Anxiety. Restlessness. Boredom, to name a few. Each one of these is reminding us that in some way life isn't conforming to one of our underlying expectations. And that's where we have to dig. Anger marks the spot! We have to dig down and find a way to make consciously explicit to ourselves those vague, half-formulated ways of shaping experience that are rubbing up against some inconvenient bit of reality and setting off that emotional reaction. Once we can make them explicit, they become simply one more thought that we can become aware of as it passes through our consciousness. That old story again. But until we're really clear and familiar with those old patterns, they'll work busily and continuously in the background, especially during those times when we think we're just sitting, doing nothing.
Real sitting isn't a passive, low-energy drift through the zazen period. Sitting must be alert, active, aware. We should constantly have our antennae out to pick up every sight and sound and feeling that arises in our body. And we have to make that level of attention second nature, like a frog who seems to sits dreamily on his lily pad, but as soon as a fly goes by - ZAP! He wasn't sitting so passively after all!
So. Just sit. Leave everything alone. Do nothing. But really do it!