It’s easy to see what you’ve done to help others. The grocery shopping you did for your neighbor when she broke her arm, the resume you helped your son put together for his first job, all the donations you’ve made and causes for which you’ve volunteered for decades.
It’s also easy to see all that others have done to help you. The first-grade teacher that lent you books and encouraged your interest in reading, the regular that left you a big tip at the restaurant where you worked, and colleagues who spoke up on your behalf when you were bullied by your boss. These are just a few of countless supportive actions you’ve given and received. But you’ve also given and received countless supportive non-actions—moments when you’ve refrained from harmful speech or bad behavior, or someone else refrained from saying or doing something that could hurt you.
It’s hard to see not-doing—but we know that the outcome of not-doing matters. The unkind comments your friend did not leave on your father’s recent inaccurate and inflammatory social media post or the second piece of cheesecake you did not eat—these are non-actions that prevented hurt and possible harm. Not-doing means refraining from cultivating unwise thoughts, words, or deeds. It may not seem as important or interesting as doing something like flying off to deliver humanitarian aid to a war zone or rescuing abused farm animals, both of which are noble and beneficial things to do. But making the choice to use restraint and self-discipline to not-do, is equally, if not more so, as powerful and meaningful. Imagine all the lives that have been saved and protected from injury or hurt, simply because so many people have decided to refrain from driving a vehicle while intoxicated. Or everyone who didn’t get sick because people with the flu or COVID-19 stayed home and didn’t spread the disease. Practicing not-doing means the causes and conditions that create many problems and struggles vanish. No solution needs to be found, no cure discovered, and no help is even necessary.
That’s why the Buddhist tradition is grounded in not-doing—because so much of the suffering in the world could be entirely alleviated if we simply didn’t cause it.
The Buddha’s five precepts—which are practiced in every lineage—are vows of not-doing—commitments to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and over-consumption. The Buddhist practices of mindfulness and compassion are designed to help us uphold these precepts by showing us how to clearly see our thoughts, words, and deeds and the effect they have on ourselves and others. The paramitas also help us develop the skill of not-doing, especially virya—diligence or discipline—and kshanti—patience or forbearance. Practicing virya, we train ourselves to stop habitual activities and patterns of behavior that cause injury or damage. With kshanti, we develop self-control and tolerance toward our difficult feelings and impulses, so instead of behaving thoughtlessly or reactively, we are able to choose not to act at all.
In his book Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Preventing war is much better than protesting against the war. Protesting the war is too late.” But it’s not too late to learn the practice of not-doing. You can help prevent a war by defeating its causes—by not acting out of hatred, greed, and delusion. You can contribute to healing the earth by refraining from overconsumption of resources. And you can prevent your own painful feelings of regret, shame, and guilt, by not saying unkind and thoughtless words, and not doing unethical or destructive deeds.
The following meditation will help you cultivate the qualities needed for not-doing, and give you the freedom to recognize when the most skillful and beneficial action is doing nothing at all.
- To begin, find a quiet place where you can sit or lie down without being disturbed.
- Set a timer for fifteen minutes, then keep your phone and computer out of reach. Turn off any music or television, and don’t talk.
- Get still. Stop moving around. Don’t close your eyes. Keep them half-closed, lowering your gaze softly a few feet in front of you on the floor. You don’t need to move your eyes around because you’re not looking at or for anything. Keep them still and just let the light enter.
- Rest your hand on your belly. Bring your attention here and take five conscious breaths, perhaps inhaling a little more deeply, and exhaling a bit more fully, noticing each rise and fall with the palm of your hand.
- Place your attention here, on your belly as it rises and falls with your breath. You don’t have to change your breathing. If you notice you’re trying to control it, do your best to let go and just rest on your natural respiration.
- As you’re sitting, you might notice emotions or impulses to get up, to make dinner or check your email, to do anything except stay. When this happens, you can place your hand on your heart and gently say to yourself, “Stay.” You can repeat this as many times as needed, breathing in “Stay” and breathing out “Stay.” Continue like this for the entire fifteen minutes, resisting the urge to get up, to do anything but stay.
- When the timer ends, don’t jump up and abruptly and start a new task. Take a moment to mindfully stop the alarm, inhale and exhale a few times, and take a big stretch. Be sure to say thank you to yourself and appreciate everything you didn’t do.
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