This article was originally published on The Huffington Post, May 4, 2010
When the retreat center I co-founded, the Insight Meditation Society, first opened, someone created a mock brochure describing a retreat there, with sayings like, “Come to IMS and have all the tea you could ever drink.” It also featured a wonderful made up motto for us: “It is better to do nothing than to waste your time.” I loved that motto, and thought it exemplified a lot about how meditation serves to help us unplug.
Although that motto never made it into our official presentation, it actually was an accurate description of insight meditation, or mindfulness meditation. Basically, we enter into mindfulness practice so that we can learn how to do nothing and not waste our time, because wasting our time is wasting our lives.
We come to meditation to learn how not to act out the habitual tendencies we generally live by, those actions that create suffering for ourselves and others, and get us into so much trouble. Doing nothing does not mean going to sleep, but it does mean resting — resting the mind by being present to whatever is happening in the moment, without adding on the effort of attempting to control it. Doing nothing means unplugging from the compulsion to always keep ourselves busy, the habit of shielding ourselves from certain feelings, the tension of trying to manipulate our experience before we even fully acknowledge what that experience is.
In our usual mind state, we are continually activating the process that in Buddhist terminology is known as “bhava,” which literally means “becoming.” In this space of becoming, we are subtly leaning forward into the future, trying to have security based on feeling that we can hold on, we can try to keep things from changing. We are continually out of balance in this state — in meditation we might notice that we even try to feel the next breath while the present one is still happening.
When we speak about letting go, or unplugging, or renouncing, we are talking about dropping the burden of becoming and just returning our awareness to the natural center of our being, returning to a state of natural peace. The movement that is often helpful in meditation is to come back, to relax, to let go of leaning forward, to let go of grasping. We can relax even from the anticipation of our next breath. We settle back, return to the present, and return to ourselves. This is what we mean by doing nothing, or unplugging.
Meditation is not the construction of something foreign, it is not an effort to attain and then hold on to a particular experience. We may have a secret desire that through meditation we will accumulate a stockpile of magical experiences, or at least a mystical trophy or two, and then we will be able to proudly display them for others to see. We may feel that we will increase our value as human beings by a process of spiritual acquisition, gaining more goodness and purity, acquiring enlightenment and understanding with a certain sense of ownership and possessiveness: “my enlightenment,” and “my clear understanding.” Our typical consumer-culture mind wants to view enlightenment as performance art or as social cachet: “People will surely notice that I’ve been transformed. That will be awfully impressive.”
Letting go of this burdensome desire for acquisition and performance, we can just let the mind rest in ease as we learn to unplug. As Tibetan lama Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche put it, “Rest in natural great peace, this exhausted mind.” Then, rather than wasting our time, our learning to practice doing nothing can lead us into the deep and renewing rest of truly living.