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I teach 8-10 new people to “do” Zen meditation every month. At times I feel kind of radical, but more and more I just want to tell them to sit still and do nothing at all. After 20 years of Zen practice, 14 years as Zen monk, and 5 years as a Zen teacher, I’m becoming deeply convinced that meditation is not something you do. Basically, just deliberately put yourself in the position of not doing anything, and the transformative and healing power of meditation takes care of itself.

“Meditating” is like resting or gardening. These “activities” may require a fair amount of care, planning, and effort in order to create a certain set of conducive circumstances, but ultimately the body rests or plants grow without “you” doing anything at all.

In the case of meditation, you create conducive circumstances by setting aside a period of time for not doing anything productive, entertaining, or pleasurable. You settle the body into stillness or into a very simple, repetitive physical movement. You gently set your intention to set aside all of your usually thinking and activity for however long you’re going to meditate.  “Okay, I’ll think about my grocery list/ problems/ upcoming trip/ projects/ the book I’m reading/ etc. after meditation. There’s no reason for me to think about it all right now.”

As you sit, your mind will continue to try to be productive, entertained, or satisfied even though you aren’t acting on any of your thoughts, but this is generally much less agitating than actually doing things.

In these conducive circumstances, your whole being has a chance to realign itself. Your body inevitably gets included in your awareness more than it usually is. Your perspective increases. You remember what matters most to you. You realize you’re okay right now, despite all the things going on in your life and the world. The ephemeral and somewhat arbitrary nature of thoughts and emotions becomes more apparent. Your nervous and endocrine systems reset (I know from experience, not from scientific experiments, although those are supporting the anecdotal observations of meditators). A more sane aspect of yourself settles into the navigator’s seat – a seat which may have been empty, or occupied by various imps, much of the time since you last meditated. Generally speaking, the longer you go without meditating, the more the imps are in control.

The trick is, none of these results are something special. They are just a normal part of healthy functioning as a human being. It’s not that you sit in meditation and consciously try to experience grand realizations about What Is Most Important in Your Life, or who your authentic self really is, or how to achieve great inner peace (although you might gain a few insights). Meditation is an unconscious or semi-conscious reset that the conscious “you” has very little to do with. Which is a great thing, except…

We want to be responsible for the positive results of meditation. We want our meditation to be good because we’re doing something. We just can’t stand to be doing nothing at all productive, entertaining, or pleasurable, so we make our meditation into something productive, entertaining, or pleasurable. If we like our meditation experience or its results, we feel proud, successful, and satisfied. If we dislike our meditation experience or its results, we beat ourselves up, give up in frustration, or try harder.

We just can’t believe we’re just supposed to sit there. That’s unfathomable. How do you even do that? (See how natural that question sounds?)

I can imagine readers protesting, “What about following the breath, or concentrating on an object, or letting go of thoughts? What about the meditation techniques we’ve been taught, and that seem to help?”

My answer is this: As least as concerns Zen meditation, techniques are ways to counteract the strong habitual tendency of our minds to try to be productive, entertained, or satisfied even when we’ve decided not to act on any of our thoughts. You might say the techniques decrease your “doing” level (because a simple technique like following your breath involves much less mental activity than brainstorming a new project for work). In this sense techniques can make the circumstances more conducive to doing nothing.

But mostly I think we give meditation techniques because people need to feel like they’re doing something. Anything. Heck – make me do something as boring and unproductive as counting my breath, but at least I can imagine it’s good for me and try to do a really good job of it! Anything but nothing.

How do the benefits of meditation happen if you don’t do anything?! Surely you can’t just sit there and let your mind do anything it wants to! Surely you need to make an effort! (Because if you don’t do something, nothing will happen!)

Isn’t it amazing that plants grow all on their own? That our bodies rest and heal, moisture ends up in the sky and comes down as rain, and species evolve, without any direct, conscious effort on our part? We can affect these processes by what we do, but ultimately they are out of our hands and part of the larger functioning of our universe.

Our being – our body-and-mind, which are actually not two – has a way of reorienting itself to reality, if we only let it. Isn’t that great? You don’t have to do anything.

Except, that is, to spend some time not doing.

Zen master Dogen wrote in 1242, in his essay called Zazenshin:

“Nanyue said, ‘If you are identified with the sitting form, you have not reached the heart of the matter.’

“To be identified with the sitting form, spoken of here, is to let go of and to touch the sitting form. The reason is that when one is sitting buddha, it is impossible not to be one with the sitting form. However clear the sitting form is, the heart of the matter cannot be reached, because it is impossible not to be one with the sitting form. To penetrate this is called letting go of body and mind.” (Translation by Kaz Tanahashi & Michael Wenger)

We already have everything we need. When we sit, we are sitting buddha – no matter how admirable or insufficient our meditative concentration. Buddha does not depend on this. By our sitting, by our not doing, we place ourselves in alignment with this truth. Naturally we want to consciously realize it, and this is the passion behind our effort, but the irony is that we consciously realize it when we become completely immersed in nondoing.


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