Nothing is more important than doing nothing.
Sitting doing nothing is the most basic of meditative practices, and yet it has the potential to radically transform our capacity to stay present with our experience. Unfortunately, doing nothing might not be as easy as it sounds.
Sitting doing nothing can be done in all sorts of ways. The Japanese Zen monk sitting in the lotus posture doing the formal practice of shikantaza—which literally means “just sitting”—is doing this basic practice. But formal meditation isn’t for everyone. Slouching on my sofa, lazing on the beach, or sitting on the bus can produce just as profound an experience for me—as long as my attention is aimed in the right direction. It doesn’t matter how formal or informal my practice appears to be. We can do the practice of sitting doing nothing wherever we don’t have to be doing anything else.
What do we actually do?
We sit comfortably, and we pay attention. That’s it. We simply keep watching what’s coming up in our experience from moment to moment. Whatever’s happening. And we do nothing with that experience. We just watch it.
We might find ourselves noticing our physical sensations, our emotions, our thoughts, or something external that might be affecting our experience, such as the contact of the cool air on our skin or the sound of the traffic outside. We’re not trying to focus on one particular aspect of our experience; we simply keep ourselves open to whatever presents itself. One moment I might be aware of a particular feeling in my body, and the next moment my attention is drawn to a sound in the next room. Whatever’s arising, my job is simply to sit and observe—as if I was sitting on the bank of the river and watching the river flow by. I don’t jump in the river, or run after it, or try to alter its course. I just watch. Like this I observe the experience of sitting here, as if I was witnessing my life from above.
So when thoughts or emotions come, I don’t engage with them. And by not engaging with them, I don’t energize them. I simply allow them to come, to stay as long as they like, and to leave. They are free to pass through my consciousness, always noticed but never clung to.
Even if my mind becomes overwhelmed by desire, anger, lust, or fear while I’m sitting, there’s no need for me to try to suppress that experience. I just observe what’s taking place within me. I allow my fear to be present. And in this way, it can be accepted.
In fact, when more challenging experiences come along in our practice, we should be happy. Happy because we’re being presented with an opportunity to work with our troublesome mind and to go beyond it.