A Way of Freedom

This article first appeared in Tricycle, November, 2010

What is it like to do nothing? I mean, really do nothing, nothing at all — no recalling what has happened, no imagining what might happen, no reflecting on what is happening, no analyzing or explaining or controlling what you experience. Nothing!

Why would you even try? We struggle in life because of a tenacious habit of wanting life to be different from what it is: the room you are in is too warm, you don’t like your job, or your partner isn’t quite the person of your dreams. You adjust the thermostat, get a new job or tell your partner what you need. Now it’s too cool, you are earning less money, or your partner has found some flaws in you. The more we try to make life conform to our desires, the more we struggle, and the more we suffer. The only way out of this vicious cycle is to accept what arises, completely: in other words, do nothing.

Paradoxically, such radical acceptance opens a way of living that we could hardly have imagined.

Years ago, I attended a three-week retreat in Colorado. I had done many retreats, including seven years in France in which I had no communication with the outside world. There the days were full. We started meditation sessions well before sunrise, and ended late in the evening. We had daily and weekly rituals and much preparatory work and clean up. We practiced different meditation methods, with set periods for practice, set periods for study and a set number of days on each method. With so much to do and to learn, there was no free time.

This retreat was different. The only meditation instruction was “do nothing”. “That’s it?” I thought, “I came here to do nothing for three weeks?” We met for meals, one teaching session in the morning and one group practice session in the evening. We had a meditation interview every few days. The rest of the time was our own. Email, cell phone, text messages, all the usual means of communication weren’t available. With no practices to learn, no commentaries to study, no preparations for rituals I had, quite literally, nothing to do except sit, lie down or go for a walk.

My cabin was on a hillside that looked over a magnificent view of tree-covered hills, with a range of mountains just visible on the horizon. The silence was complete, highlighted by the songs of birds, the wind in the trees, rain and thunderstorms, and the grunts, scuffles or calls of animals in the dark. Every day, the sun rose, crossed the sky, and set, with the moon and stars dancing in the night.

“What a relief,” I thought, “plenty of time to rest and practice.” But I soon found that doing absolutely nothing, not even entertaining myself, wasn’t so easy.

Ajahn Cha, one of the great Thai teachers of the 20th century, gave the following practice instruction:

Put a chair in the middle of a room.
Sit in the chair.
See who comes to visit.

One has to be careful with such instructions. I once gave this to a woman who came to see me and was surprised to learn that she put a chair in the center of her living room, sat in it, and waited for people to visit. When nobody knocked on her door, she decided that meditation wasn’t for her. Ajahn Cha was, of course, speaking poetically. Nevertheless, in some sense, all of us are like this woman, waiting for something to happen.

No shortage of visitors for me! Relief, peace, a deep sense of relaxation, joy, and happiness all paid their respects. “Good,” I thought, “all this will deepen and wisdom or insight will come.” After all, I had read in many texts that, as the mind rests, it naturally becomes clear.

Instead, the visitors continued, but with a difference. The more deeply I relaxed, the more I became aware of stuff inside me, stuff stored in rusting boxes in mildewed basements. Along came memories, pleasant and unpleasant, stories about my life, old desires, boredom and a sense of futility. I kept pushing these visitors away, or analyzing them, trying to understand them so I could be free of them. I was back in the old struggle, trying to control my experience. The visitors became more disturbing, more demanding of attention. Some harbored hatred and a desire for revenge. Others cried with unfulfilled longing and yearning. Still others drugged me into a dull lethargy. They had no awareness of the beauty and peace around me. I began to lose hope that I would achieve anything in this retreat.

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