"Doing Nothing" is Being Everything


One of the most pernicious lies of our mechanistic, productivity- and profit-obsessed economic culture is that "doing nothing" is a waste of time. To the contrary, "doing nothing" is one of the most healing and time-feeding activities we can engage.

The brilliant acoustic ecologist and natural quiet activist Gordon Hempton advocates for developing an active, whole-bodied listening ability he calls "true listening." When immersed in a natural environment undisturbed by human or mechanistic noise intrusions, we can open our acoustic and sensory sensibilities in ways and to extents that the vast majority of modern people don't even realize are possible. At the core of this practice is totally relinquishing the need to do anything in the sense of being productive, achieving something, generating some measurable output from our experience, or recording or analyzing what happened.

This is very difficult for people raised in civilizational commerce-economic culture, because we've been conditioned to believe that nothing "counts" (the pun here is not incidental) in life unless it somehow contributes to an increase in productivity, efficiency, and achievement measured in abstract, quantitative values.

Take outdoor recreation, for instance. Today, it is rare to find someone who enters a wild natural ecology for the express purpose of doing absolutely nothing. Instead, the vast majority of outdoor recreation today engages the wilderness as merely a pretty and entertaining backdrop for some outcome/achievement-oriented experience such as exercise that is all too often tracked, measured, and analyzed with an extensive entourage of electronic devices strapped to a person like barnacles blanketing a whale, as they hike, cycle, climb, run, walk, swim, or even camp. Please note: I am not saying that exercise is bad, or that there's never any legitimate purpose for such activity tracking. I'm just saying that there's another, wholly different, immensely valuable, and mostly neglected way to experience nature, and that's what I'm emphasizing here.

When we enter nature with a limited schedule and an explicit goal of burning so many calories and/or traveling some pre-determined distance within some pre-determined window of time, we hardly even experience nature in our efforts to succeed in such a goal-oriented activity. We prioritize the quantity of experience over the quality of experience. This also creates a contrived expectation of our experience as either meeting our goal and thus "succeeding," or not meeting our goal and thus "failing." What an awful way to experience the mysterious magic of the tangible manifestation of divine, cosmic quantum creation that we call "nature"!

There is another way to engage nature, which has no "goal" other than to experience nature as fully as possible, which entails becoming nature itself. Hempton explains that "true listening" is not listening for anything, or trying to hear anything in particular. It is a practice of opening our holistic sensory capacities such that we commune with a surrounding ecology as a holistically-unified, emergent experiential event. It is a form of witnessing what is actually there, rather than bringing to the experience a template, goal, agenda, or set of needs that nature can instrumentally help us realize. In this sense, it is a form of withnessing, as Bayo Akomalafe says. We are being with nature, and -- if you settle into this practice long enough -- eventually simply being nature.

The wine importer and reviewer Terry Theise writes that "Silence is not the absence of noise; it is the presence of eternity." Gordon Hempton promotes the same basic idea (I'm not sure who wrote/said it first): "Silence isn't the absence of something, but the presence of everything." We can think of "silence," perhaps more accurately, as "natural quiet." That is, a naturally quiet acoustic ecology is one undisturbed and unpolluted by noise, which we can define as sound produced by something foreign to (i.e., not functionally-adaptively integrated with) the ecological system in question. In other words, an ecology characterized by "natural quiet" is one in which only those forms of life integrally embedded in the ecology as an autopoietic system contribute to the acoustic qualities of that environment.

On an individual human level, the "acoustic environment" of our own somatic symphonies (i.e., our "physical body") is typically full of "noise." What I mean here is the often incessant "mind chatter" that plagues the cognitive environments of many modern humans and civilizational-urban society (social mind) generally. In our hyperactive, anxious, "never enough," "don't fall behind/don't miss out" digital information age, many people are inundated with non-stop informational stimulation streaming at us from a thousand angles every minute of our waking lives. In such a state, there is an extreme imbalance of quantity-quality, as we are flooded with huge quantities of very low-quality information and cognitive stimulation and experience.

Our cognitive diets, in other words, are the mindful equivalent of only eating drive-thru fast food and junk food while driving hurriedly to our next brief stop before hopping back in our cars and driving anxiously to the next thing we're probably late for, and then quickly slurping a sugar-infused "coffee" drink to artificially stimulate our overworked and distressed brains long enough to stay awake for the next meeting or activity we engage superficially by only going through the motions, and then eventually crashing at the end of the day and repeating the same theme park ride-like cycle all over again. This is profoundly unhealthy (like, duh ;)

What natural quiet enables is an opportunity to let this noisy mind-chatter dissipate and thereby open an embodied cognitive space for the emergence of the subtle, nuanced sensory qualities that constitute 99% of human cognition. Many people don't even realize how full of low-quality, vacuous mental "noise" is their daily cognitive experiencing. And, in a similar vein, many people don't realize that it's not only possible, but deeply desirable, to experience reality without such distracting stimulation.

The challenge for modern folk desiring such an experience is that the more we try to do something to generate such an experience, the further we'll be from this experience. As Alan Watts says, "the best way to clear muddy water is to let it settle." This is the same basic phenomenon as trying to float on your back in the ocean or in a pool. The more you move around and tense your muscles, the less successfully you'll be able to float. This also reminds me of one of my favorite parables: 

A new Zen student goes to his Zen master and asks, "Master, how long will it take me to achieve enlightenment?" The Zen master thinks for a second and replies: "10 years." The student is dismayed, thinking that's quite a long time. So, the student responds, "What if I try twice as hard?" And the Zen master replies: "20 years."

So in "true listening," or what we could also call full-bodied/minded listening, the idea is to relinquish the need to actively do anything, especially not via top-down, executive cognition that begins with abstract, analytic conceptual thought. When we allow this, we are enabling ourselves to experience everything, as Terry Theise and Gordon Hempton say. So, by "doing nothing," we are actually being everything.

The previous statement is actually a scientifically true and valid claim. In the current paradigm shift of deep life-mind continuity, the 2,500 year old "substance metaphysical" paradigm is replaced with what's called the process metaphysical (or ontological) paradigm. The substance-entity-particle-thing-object ontology has dominated Western science, medicine and philosophy ever since Parmenides contrived it and it was taken up by Plato and Aristotle, and thereby passed down to the countless generations of researchers and scholars who adopted their general theoretical frameworks, details and derivative changes notwithstanding.

(Ontology is basically the general study of or inquiry into what reality "is." E.g., what is the basic "stuff" of reality? Inanimate physical matter? Four basic elements? Energy? Consciousness? Spirits, souls, and deities? Science has now finally circled back to what indigenous peoples and spiritualists/mystics have known forever, but which modern civilizational humans have forgotten for various contingent sociohistorical-intellectual-cultural-economic-ideological reasons: the most basic, fundamental, and ultimate "stuff" of reality is awareness. It was only through the modern, patriarchal, European white male-led, scientistic, reductionistic, materialistic, mechanistic, linear, uninspired, abstract, detached, "objective," quantitative analytic paradigm that people came to think of reality as "made up of" lifeless, inanimate, physical matter. This sad and profoundly unscientific thesis was undermined by the results of scientific study itself well over 100 years ago. People don't let go of dogma overnight, though, so many people still cling to this fundamentally mistaken idea.)

The substance ontological paradigm metaphorically (as all science does...as the famed evolutionary biologist, geneticist, and mathematician Richard Lewontin, Ph.D. reminds us: "It is not possible to do the work of science without using a language that is filled with metaphors.") presents an image of reality as a room-like empty space filled with objects or entities that connect and interact in ways that make up the physical "stuff" of reality. E.g., imagine a box containing marbles, or a living room containing various pieces of furniture, people, animals, etc.

This substance ontology is fundamentally and inherently dualistic. There are things (objects, entities, particles, etc.) that do things (engage in activities, perform various functions, move, speak, etc.; generally act in various ways). The basic duality, then, is thing-activity. There is first an existing thing, and then that thing acts, behaves, or moves in some way.

Science has now emphatically shown that such a dualistic ontology is false (for a very, very long time, in fact; the other main paradigm in Western thought has just been overshadowed by the popularity of the substance paradigm). That is, this conceptual-theoretical framework of reality does not map onto the facts as revealed by empirical study of the ontological nature of this universe. Despite the intuitive appeal of the substance-entity perspective (there are things that do things), science has revealed how fundamentally inaccurate this is, much like the once-intuitive beliefs that the Earth is the center of the solar system, galaxy and universe -- and the once-intuitive belief that the Earth is flat -- have been totally undermined by scientific study of reality.

We now have abundant evidence that a process ontology is vastly more capable of describing and explaining phenomena as they naturally occur. In a process ontology, reality is seen as consisting of a multidimensional field of intersecting, mutually-constituting processes that are only distinguished as "individual" or separate in the realm of abstract-conceptual observation. Independent of any analytic distinctions and projections, all that exists are ontologically continuous emergent events: happenings, processes, occurrences, goings-ons, actings. So in this perspective, "what" something is, is "how" it acts. In other words, as Maturana and Varela say, "the being ("what") and doing ("how") of an autopoietic unity are inseparable" (The Tree of Knowledge, p. 48). Or, as Nicholas Rescher, Ph.D. puts it: "instead of a two-tier reality that combines things with their inevitable coordinated processes, [process ontology] settles for a one-tier ontology of process alone. ...It replaces the troublesome ontological dualism of thing and activity with an internally complex monism of activities of varying, potentially compounded sorts" (Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues, p. 9).

The process perspective is the scientifically more valid theoretical framework. As John Dupré and Daniel Nicholson explain in their book Everything Flows: Toward a Processural Philosophy of Biology:

Process ontology...is far more attuned to and concordant with the understanding of the living world provided by the findings of contemporary biology than its substantialist rival [the substance ontological paradigm]" (p. 22)

Similar to the age-old saying "You are what you eat," we can expand this idea to all of life generally: you are what you do. In fact, there is a direct and literal connection between these sentiments, given that, as I discuss a bit more in this blog post, cognition and the metabolism of a living system are the same thing.

Finally returning to the main idea here, we can now make sense of the heading of this post: "Doing nothing" is Being Everything. The seeming paradox of the statement is only due to the patent absurdity of "doing nothing." This, of course, is impossible. When we go to the wilderness and simply be there without trying to accomplish, achieve, produce, understand, analyze, record, capture, or change anything, we are not "doing nothing" -- we are actually doing everything because we are being all of Nature by allowing ourselves to fully experience -- i.e. energetically resonate and connect with, and thereby become -- all of what is there, without concern to engage or perceive only certain anthropocentrically-isolated aspects of the total environment, separate from the whole. And as science now confirms, for living systems doing is being, and being is doing

It is only in the awkward, dualistic, empirically-inaccurate terminology, grammar, and structure of some languages -- especially English, as I explain on the Social Trauma and the Somatic Symphony page -- that it seems natural to separate thing/being from activity/doing. This is why I emphasize so strongly throughout this website, and especially the Embodied Cognition page, that none of the ideas I present here will be deeply understood if you try to "understand" them by thinking about them in abstract, conceptual-analytic cognition. This is basically the intellectual version of a Chinese finger trap: the more forcefully you try to remove your finger, the tighter the grip of the trap.

Analogously, the harder you try to "understand" process ontology and embodied cognition through conceptual analysis, the further you'll be from "understanding" it. This is because, as I detail on the Embodied Cognition page, 99% of cognition is non-conceptual. The massive irony swirling through this whole paradigm shift in the life-mind sciences is that most scientists and scholars are still trying to understand/explain, through conceptual analysis, how 99% of cognition is non-conceptual. Remarkably, many of these people have Ph.Ds., Psy.D.s, and other fancy credentials that make people believe that their abstract analyses of cognition should be trusted over their own, direct embodied experience. This is like women trusting me -- a cishetero male -- to explain what childbirth is like because I got a medical degree and specialized in the study of childbirth. Of course, in such a case, I may know more conceptually-analytically-technically about the biochemistry, hormones, and physiology of childbirth, but it would be an absurdity of the highest order to maintain that I would have a more authoritative perspective on childbirth as a phenomenon generally-inclusively, which of course entails the entire, complex phenomenology and direct experience of actually giving birth, which I have never and will never experience.

So, if you want to be everything, learn to allow yourself to "do nothing" except experience directly and holistically a natural ecology unperturbed by the noisy, chaotic sensory qualities characteristic of contemporary urban culture. You may drop into this experience immediately, but it might also take some time to uncouple from the magnetic trance of our digitally-distracted cultural cognition. So many people's baseline experience is so profoundly skewed by the extremely unnatural condition of the high tech industrial-digital world that to simply sit in the wilderness and feel, hear, smell, and see without any agenda, goal, or timeline is a proper challenge, and may even feel unsafe at first. But keep in mind: that feeling of danger is not coming from nature, it is being carried into nature by us, who have come to resonate with/as the chaotic, uncertain, threatening, anxious, hyperactive and cynical qualities of our contemporary social condition/ecology.

The power of quiet is great. It generates the same feelings in everything one encounters. It vibrates with the cosmic rhythm of oneness. It is everywhere, available to everyone at any time. It is the force within us that makes us stable, trusting, and loving. It is contemplation contemplating. Peace is letting go -- returning to the silence that cannot enter the realm of words because it is too pure to be contained in words. This is why the tree, the stone, the river, and the mountain are quiet." 

- Malidoma Patrice Somé