This short book by the Canadian author Ian McCrorie is a collection of personal stories, stories of others, and insights gained from experience, all of which centres around one skill – doing nothing. If that sounds like no skill at all, keep on reading. Doing nothing, understood in the way McCrorie explains it, might be one of the most valuable and one of the most difficult skills to master. I, too, was surprised.
My general conclusion having read this book is this: we are what we focus on. Where we direct our attention matters probably more than we realise. Therefore, if we are acting in life mostly automatically, without much awareness of our thoughts and behaviours, we are governed by what the author calls the conditioned mind. The conditioned mind is a collection of all the habits, unconscious reactions, instinctive behaviour and thought patterns, all that which requires little or no conscious effort on our part. The conditioned mind is a complex combination of influences exerted on us throughout our life by our family, friends, community, society, culture, time and place. We absorb all these narratives and they shape our own self-narrative. That is the conditioning process.
The opposite of this is the unconditioned mind. The author refers to this as the pure, free mind. Free from all the conditioning collected during life. While I do not fully agree with the possibility to attain an entirely unconditioned mind, I consider the practice of unconditioning to be very valuable and self-affirming (a point on which the author might raise the objection that there is no real ‘self’, but that is a topic for another article). The unconditioned mind is a state of intense awareness of one’s habitual, automatic impulses without engaging with them. The process of unconditioning the mind happens through the training of non-engaged observation. For instance, I am paying close and deliberate attention to my urge to have a snack in the evening when I watch TV, I observe this urge but I do not engage with it. In short, I let it be. Any sort of response to it, such as trying to suppress it or indulge it, would mean engagement. Engagement reinforces it. Non-engaged observation acknowledges its existence but does not allow it to take the driving seat. Without engagement, it passes. Just like any other urge, sensation, thought, feeling.
This non-engaged, conscious, intensely aware observation is what the author calls “doing nothing”. Nothing here stands for non-engagement. More precisely, conscious non-engagement, filled with focused attention. In other words, something would be any sort of automatic, reactive and unreflective engagement. Viewed from this perspective, doing something is a habitual engagement, doing nothing is a reflective non-engagement. Therefore, when the author tells about his experience of doing nothing, he conveys his views on what I would call the practice of mental discipline. Doing this is definitely not ‘nothing’ in any usual sense of the word. Anyone who has tried changing a habit, for instance, can confirm that the practice of mental discipline required for such a change is a hard and enduring effort, which often is not apparent on the outside but demands immense internal work.
Incidentally, an interesting observation follows from this: we tend to consider something to count as real activity and be recognized as a real effort when that something is outwardly apparent to us. This applies to our attitudes toward others and also ourselves. We can become very self-critical and accuse ourselves of procrastination and laziness when we are not visibly active, apparently busy. Visibility matters. What this focus on visibility suggests is that, for many of us, if something is to pass the test of truth, reality, and importance, it must be out there.
If we are honest with ourselves, how often have we thought something along these lines – if I am not visibly busy and active, I am not doing anything, I am just being lazy, which is a bad thing, it’s a selfish thing, so I have to start doing something, to be active so that I and others see that I am not selfish and lazy, I am a hardworking, good person. This sort of thought pattern is, of course, one of the many ways our minds are conditioned.
By this, I do not imply that we should revolt against any sort of activity. Rather, in agreement with the author’s ideas, I mean to say that a habit of keeping busy for the sake of visibility is not at all always useful or beneficial to us or those around us, especially when this is an automatic habit we are not aware of. For example, it can lead to a person becoming a workaholic to the detriment of their own health and the quality of relationships this person may have. Alternatively, it can cause a person to become deeply resentful and unable to experience satisfaction with their life because they are stuck in a job they hate but cannot leave due to a paralysing feeling of guilt.
There may be a variety of circumstances that do not allow someone to immediately quit a job they don’t like or work shorter hours to improve their work/other-parts-of-life balance, but the practice of sharpening one’s mind to notice such habitual patterns of thought and behaviour, becoming more aware of them, can encourage an inner change of perception. Instead of feeling like a powerless victim of circumstances, I can recognise that I have the power (and a responsibility that comes with it) to shape my attitude towards whatever circumstances come my way, and, with a calmer, more focused mind I can consciously navigate those circumstances the best way that fits me and that I am able to.
The crucial point is that by training my mind to practice conscious observation, focused non-engagement – mental discipline – I become more grounded and calmer, as I am increasingly aware of the inner power I have to influence my own attitudes and thoughts (that which I can control), thus being better equipped to deal with various life situations I might find myself in (that which I cannot control). This empowering change of perception is possible in no small part because of the recognition that not everything that is true, real, and valuable is out there – some very important part of it is in here.
[If you enjoy my work and would like to read more of it, please consider becoming a Patron. For example, I wrote another small piece here about a quote from McCrorie’s book, an idea that death can be perceived as a sign of luck.]