What is “do nothing” meditation?


April 8, 2022
Filipe Bastos


Most forms of mindfulness meditation require effort, whether it’s the focused attention of concentration practices or the more broad awareness encouraged by practices like Non-Duality. In fact, one of the main criticisms of mindfulness is that it can seem to vilify the idea of daydreaming and suggest that letting the mind wander naturally is a bad thing. This is a slight misconception –mindfulness simply creates a space in which to focus on taming the mind and thinking differently, if only for a few minutes each day – but it’s true that we often place too much pressure and intention on our meditation practice. “Do Nothing” meditation is all about moving away from that notion.

Now, it’s worth noting early on that the words ‘Do’ and ‘Nothing’ are inherently opposites. At any one moment, you are always breathing, or moving, even in some barely identifiable way. So why is the idea of “Doing Nothing” so ingrained in both modern society and culture and in ancient meditative practices? In this article, we’ll focus on the latter and explain how taking a “Do Nothing” approach to meditation can help open your mind and create positive change in various aspects of life.

The Art of Doing Nothing

Meditation teacher Shinzen Young, who gave the “Do Nothing” technique its name, insists that this type of meditation should include the suffix “with time”. In other words, this is a practice that one gradually develops a knack for in the long term. He says “with time, you’ll develop a sensitivity for the part of you that controls attention.” But we’ll get more into the benefits of this type of meditation soon; first, let’s take you through the basics of how it actually works.

“Do Nothing” meditation represents the opposite of standard mindfulness meditation; instead of creating a state of calmness by focusing on the breath or another anchor, meditators practise simply letting their minds go wherever they like, without control or disruption. Various different terms have been coined in relation to this meditation practice, including “choiceless awareness” or “Just sitting”, which derives from the Zen practice of Shikantaza. Its principles have been employed in a number of different spiritual traditions, including the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Dzogchen (meaning “great completeness”), which encourages meditators to reach a space of emptiness or “purity” in order to understand the true nature of existence. Another similar technique is the concept of radical acceptance, which teaches that only by accepting the things that are out of our control can we truly end suffering.

Clearly then, this is an idea that humans have been considering for a long time. But it might still sound a little airy-fairy and difficult to grasp — if that’s the case, don’t worry. Later on this blog post, we’ll take you through exactly how to create a “Do Nothing” experience for yourself. But first, let’s briefly consider the science behind this meditative method.

The Neuroscience of Doing Nothing

A lecture by American neuroscientist and psychiatrist Judson Brewer explains how humans can benefit from flow states in which we’re focusing on nothing in particular and instead wrapped up in the joy of just “being”. There’s science to back this idea up. FMRI brain scans show that the activity of the PCC (posterior cingulate cortex) decreases when we let go of the feeling of doing anything. This means that the default mode network, which can cause stress and other negative feelings, is less active. The more it feels like things are just effortlessly happening, the more your default mode network slows down, which boosts your levels of happiness and peace of mind. This is one of the many positive effects meditation can have on human brain structure and the brainwaves we experience.

The “Do Nothing” Meditation Technique

During meditation, thoughts, memories, worries, pains, itches, and a million other distractions come up. “Do Nothing” practices encourage us to simply accept all of these things. Whether what we’re experiencing is boring, neutral, negative, or positive, the trick is to not resist any of it or judge anything as bad. Your mind can ruminate on stories, escalate into monkey chatter, or do anything else — and this is the whole technique!

According to Shinzen Young, the instruction stage for this meditative practice should essentially amount to two sentences:

Let whatever happens happen.

As soon as you’re aware of an intention to control your attention, drop that intention.

The first instruction is all about allowing sensory experiences to happen, whatever they are. You could get sleepy or restless, you could get lost in monkey mind, or you could have very little clarity. All these things are okay — let them happen.

Don’t worry about where your mind goes while you’re sitting. It can go to all sorts of distractions, and that’s fine. The main thing is that you’re not making a concerted effort to meditate, focus, or concentrate in any way.

The instruction “As soon as you’re aware of an intention to control your attention, drop that intention” might sound like it’s encouraging you to monitor whether or not you have intentions; however, this isn’t the case. This is because if you’re actively trying to seek out and drop intentions, you’re actually doing two things, rather than doing one, or even nothing. Instead, this form of meditation is just about sitting and allowing the mind to wander.

It’s also okay to be unaware of your own intentions. You can’t force it; you have to wait for the awareness to be there. This could take just a few seconds, but it could also take a long time. When you do become aware of a particular intention, “do nothing” meditation asks you to drop this thought or idea, letting go of it in order to simply “be”.

How long should I practise for?

When you first try this technique, you should set aside 10-15 minutes for it. As you become more comfortable and the process becomes a little easier to get into, you can extend the period of time you spend practising. Given the free, liberated principle that remains at the core of this form of meditation, you might not be surprised to hear that the period of time you spend practising this technique can vary immensely depending on your individual circumstances and needs. There’s no end goal, and you definitely don’t have to be searching for some kind of spiritual awakening or enlightenment. Crucially, there’s no “wrong” way of doing this kind of meditation. Just let go of intentions, and let go of control.

Why “try” to do nothing?

Most forms of meditation seem to focus on cultivating a state of mind that wasn’t there before you started that particular meditation method. But what about the innate capacity for inner peace and happiness that’s already inside us? Shouldn’t we be able to access awakening without even trying?

The type of meditation we’ve focused on today is all about cultivating a form of effortlessness. This can lead to flow states, in which we are entirely “in the zone”, engaged with the task at hand and able to perform it with no visible effort. Not only are these states great for creativity, open-mindedness, and general well-being, they can also help reduce feelings of irritability, impatience, frustration, and forgetfulness.

As we mentioned earlier, the “Do Nothing” technique can also help take the pressure away from meditation, which is often what gets in the way of effective practice. Our belief that we must always be doing something, completing tasks, and striving forwards, is what drives the ego. This can get in the way of us noticing or experiencing more profound states of mind. When we let go of the need for action and instead “do nothing”, our egoic voice quietens, and the attitude change this causes can be immense.

What if it doesn’t work?

It’s possible that you’ll find this type of meditation hard. You could end up just sitting there, thinking about current problems and difficult experiences, considering what you’re going to have for lunch, or just getting sleepy and tired, without getting much deeper into meditation. There are a few things you might end up doing that signal intentional thinking, and that you should try and shift away from if you become aware of them:

  • Actively trying to meditate
  • Trying to focus on something specifically
  • Intentionally thinking about a certain topic
  • Keeping track of the time or tracking events that are happening
  • Focusing on a certain sight or sound within your environment

If you find yourself doing one of these things, first of all, don’t beat yourself up about it! It’s totally natural for the mind to drift towards intentional thoughts and behaviours, so it takes practice to just “do nothing” instead. One good fix you can try if this problem strikes you is to use breath awareness as a gateway into your meditation session. Spend 10 minutes or so focusing on the breath (check out this article for some advice on the best breathwork techniques out there), and hopefully, you’ll gently transition into a more natural form of “do nothing” meditation. Another thing you can try is defocusing your gaze, keeping your eyes open but allowing them to blur, and letting yourself space out a little.

For some more tips on how to tackle the typical problems that stop people from meditating, check out our free eBook, ‘Why Can’t I Meditate? 5 Common Challenges and How To Overcome Them’.

Getting Something from Nothing

Many people believe that “real meditation” is simply about letting go of control and breaking away from the human need to constantly guide our own experience. Mindfulness meditation can be great for developing ways to control our chaotic minds and ground ourselves in present moment experience; however, calmness and peace can also be achieved by simply letting our minds go where they like. You can think of your mind as an energetic dog who you’ve let off the leash at a park. They’ll run around like crazy for a while, but if you just sit on a bench calmly waiting for them to get tired, they will eventually come back to you. In the same way, taking an effortless approach to meditation might lead to all sorts of crazy thoughts at first, but in the end, your internal monologue will hopefully settle down.

When it comes to thriving and surviving in an intense, busy, constantly interconnected world, one of the best things you can do is learn how to do nothing. Aimlessness, rest, and boredom can be great sources of inspiration and creativity, while thinking without an open mind can create tunnel vision and stop you from accomplishing your goals. Ultimately, the brain needs downtime in order to process the events of a day, store memories and experiences, recuperate, and ensure it is performing at its optimum level. We need to look after our emotional and mental health and give our brains the rest they need; “do nothing” meditation can be a great way of making this process more natural. If you’d like to learn more about how to slow down and start living less busily, check out our article on effortless meditation: how letting go of effort can help you meditate better.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Is meditating just doing nothing?

The term ‘meditation’ encompasses a huge range of different practices, from various different spiritual traditions and cultural contexts. Some of these involve doing nothing, while others require intense levels of concentration. To improve your knowledge on this subject, check out our article on the six main types of meditation.

How do I train myself to do nothing?

As we’ve explored, it can be difficult to feel comfortable doing nothing. You may need to train yourself to move away from human habits of busyness and action, and mindfulness noting practices of breathing techniques can be a great way to do this. Our article on Quick Mindfulness Exercises You Can Do Anywhere can provide you with some useful ideas.

What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

We’ve talked a lot in this article about how “Do Nothing” meditation differs from most mindfulness practices, and you might be a little confused about the distinctions between mindfulness and meditation. Put simply, meditation is a formal practice, while mindfulness can be a quality of mind as well as a form of meditative exercise. You can find out more about the differences between the two terms in this article.

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