Buddhist practice involves engaging in actions on a path to freedom and awakening. Action, in other words, is key. Reading about Buddhism is not the same as taking up the practice. If we learn about Buddhist practice but don’t change any of our behaviors, we won’t experience the benefits of the practice. Unless we actually take up the activity of mindfulness, mindfulness practice will have no role in our lives. If we decide we want to meditate but fail to actually do it, we won’t experience the fruits of meditation. Without acting on our best values, it would be as if we didn’t have those values at all. Buddhist practice is founded on the principle that our actions are consequential and we can choose actions that lead to greater peace, freedom, and compassion.
Despite this emphasis on action, Buddhism does put primary emphasis on two forms of non-doing: non-craving and non-clinging. The Buddhist path of liberation aims at the cessation of these two mental actions because craving and clinging are the conditions for the arising of dukkha, the Buddhist word for suffering, stress, and distress. When craving and clinging have ceased, not only does dukkha not occur, it is replaced by a deeply meaningful, timeless peace. And when we are no longer involved with craving and clinging, the heart has lots of space for wisdom and compassion.
Although it might sound paradoxical, non-action is also an important kind of action on the Buddhist path. Just as it’s important to understand which actions place us on the path of freedom, it is equally important to understand when non-action is called for. For some people this may be more difficult than learning to act—perhaps because it’s easier to believe we’re making a difference if we’re doing something. This difficulty may be particularly acute when it comes to our inner life, where the habits of behaving, thinking, and believing are often so deeply embedded that not only are they difficult to stop, they can seem natural or innate—part of our “hardware”—so that we don’t even recognize them as activities we have any choice over. A lifetime of doing, fixing, arranging, and controlling can be difficult to put to rest.
One of the foundational Buddhist practices of non-action involves refraining from acting on unethical impulses. The five ethical precepts are the most obvious examples of this practice. The precepts involve a commitment to not act on our intentions to harm others, steal, lie, engage in sexual misconduct, or become intoxicated. Commitment to these precepts is not always easy to adhere to because unethical impulses and intentions can be powerful. When they are, the non-action required may be quite active, requiring lots of inner strength to support our commitment to refrain.
Forbearance and patience are also important though less appreciated practices of non-action. Human life is filled with situations that frustrate our preferences, destabilize our equanimity, and evoke our ire. Because it is rarely beneficial to act—or react—when we are frustrated, unstable, or angry, practicing patience may be the best approach to avoid making a difficult situation worse. Such non-action is called forbearance when we also have to tolerate discomfort.
As most people who meditate know, meditation takes sustained effort. But from one perspective at least, it also involves a lot of non-action. With the body resting still, we are not engaged in the physical activities that characterize much of our lives. Similarly, by keeping our attention in the present moment, the meditative mind is not actively and intentionally involved in most forms of daily mental activity such as thinking about the past, the future, or fantasies. When we’re engaged in meditation, being preoccupied with expectations and goals and evaluating our progress are all counterproductive. So is criticizing ourselves for how “well” or “unwell” we’re meditating. Assuming too much active responsibility for our meditation can derail the relaxing, unwinding, and opening that support meditation practice. Mindfulness practitioners also learn that “selfing” is not helpful. Concerns with self-identity, self-justification, and self-aversion, are mental activities that meditators eventually learn to refrain from in favor of experiencing more peace.
People who practice meditation discover ever-subtler forms of non-action. For example, they learn that picking up a thought and getting involved with it is a mental action that isn’t necessary and needn’t be automatic. If the thought is not picked up, it can be left alone to fade away on its own. With mindfulness, we can develop the ability to choose which thoughts to engage with and which to avoid. In this way, non-action is an effective antidote for neuroses that result from being overly involved with thoughts. For some people, giving up the usual habits of mental activity is the most important lesson they can learn in meditation, partly because of the relief it brings and partly because it allows them to discover beneficial aspects of their inner life that had been hidden by all the doing.
Rather than directly solving our personal problems, non-action and meditation can help us to step away from our preoccupation with our problems, and this change in emphasis can sometimes make space for new solutions to arise or for the problem itself to diminish on its own. Some problems are better dissolved than solved. Some issues are seen more clearly when we aren’t ruminating about them.
But non-action isn’t always easy. It can require a lot of self-discipline and willpower when we’re in the grip of desires and fears. Not acting on addictive drives may be as difficult as it is beneficial. It can be hard to resist the impulse to stay up late watching TV or surfing the internet, but when we do, we can get a good night’s sleep and wake up ready for the workday ahead. For those who have strong cravings for addictive substances, the pull to indulge can be very powerful, but when they refrain, they may be able to hold on to a job or a marriage.
Even in more mundane situations, non-action has benefits. For people who are always quick to speak, sometimes at the expense of interrupting others, practicing non-action in conversation can be helpful and instructive. This might be as simple as waiting to speak until others are clearly finished. Or it can involve allowing moments of silence. Not acting on every impulse to speak is a way to respect others. It is also a way to allow for greater mindfulness of what’s happening in a conversation.
In lives of constant doing, periods of non-activity can serve as important intervals of rest, recovery, and discovery. When we’re perpetually busy we can easily lose touch with ourselves, how we’re feeling, and even our most important values. Not doing may be just the medicine for relieving stress or providing time to process unresolved feelings. Letting go of any attempt to accomplish or do anything but instead simply looking out the window or drinking a cup of tea may give the mind and heart a chance to reveal something important that has been overlooked or which we have not yet thought about. Non-action can be the seedbed for creativity and healing.
Non-doing is also a significant way of learning about ourselves. As we attempt to stop our usual activities, we discover the impulses that make stopping so difficult. In this way we learn where we are attached, and we learn about the emotions, impulses, and beliefs that keep us caught up. When we refrain from doing something we habitually do, we might get to see for the first time the cost the activity has had—sometimes over a lifetime. Finally, it may be only when we have ceased being active that we can see that we have more choices in how to act.
In deep meditation practice a time comes when it is helpful to let go of all intentional mental activity, even of mindfulness, concentration, and any other ways we are “meditating.” This can provide a profound sense of well being that is not dependent on getting what we want, avoiding what we don’t want, or any other efforts to “do” anything. It is a sense of well being that loosens the grip of our attachments.
It is possible to become free of clinging—this is what the path of freedom is all about. To find this path each person must find the right balance of action and non-action.