The question arose recently in a Continuum workshop about doing and not doing. A rich discussion ensued, exploring the relationship between these two and how they can meet.
The Taoist notion of Wu Wei Wu comes to mind, natural doing without attachment. In Continuum, we do various things and then observe their effects, like scientific inquiry. It involves keen skills of observation, but we learn from applying different variables to shift conditions.
I am reminded of my challenge with Vipassana meditation some years ago as I became passionate about Continuum. The Vipassana teachers under S. N. Goenka were extremely strict and rigid about what could and could not be practiced in addition to Vipassana. As you became a more “serious meditator,” like I was, attending long courses of 20, 30 or even more days of silent meditation, you were expected to have Vipassana as the center of your life. Essentially all other practices were considered problematic.
I knew I needed to tell the teachers what I was doing with Continuum, that it was not strictly a movement exercise but involved awareness and certain states of consciousness, as well as intention. If I did not tell them, the withholding would not be right speech. As expected, when I told them, I was asked to make a choice. If I continued with Continuum, I would not be able to continue sitting long courses, running a weekly meditation group sitting, or serving the Vipassana community in any way. They seemed to consider me a bad influence. What was my crime? I chose life!
Well, that was my interpretation. In Vipassana, there was talk of getting off the wheel of life. I realized that, for the first time in my life, I really wanted to live. I wanted to embrace being in a body fully and to enjoy it. As much as I loved and benefitted from Vipassana, I knew that my body was suffering from the long hours of sitting and doing nothing other than observing sensations arising and passing away. It was becoming stagnant. A short time later, I was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma, as if to prove the point.
Perhaps, intense meditative practices like Vipassana are the ultimate for people who have already had the experience of fully living their lives. Sometimes I wonder if many of us drawn to those practices are actually unconsciously acting out our dissociative or ambivalent attachment tendencies. Observing what is can be helpful in coming back into a body, but I wonder about how useful it is to reject life in favor of the cushion.
A Continuum of Embodied Awareness
My choice to continue deepening into Continuum (and life) was not an ending of my meditation practice. To me, it was a way to deepen my awareness and bring it more fully into my life. Continuum involves increasingly subtle awareness, just like Vipassana. It differs in its feminine flow within the body. My body loves it!
The main issue for the Vipassana teachers with Continuum was that it involved doing something other than just observing. In Continuum, we use different kinds of breaths, make sounds into our tissues, and move our bodies as part of the inquiry into our fluid nature. We do what we do with as much awareness as possible, sensing the vibrations of the sounds as they enter our tissues, the tingling of nerve cells awakening, the trickle of motion and breath into new areas. We sense the places of stuckness, pain, thickness or heaviness, the places where we hold our bodies up from the support of the earth under us, and where the weight of our bodies yields into that support.
After our bit of doing, we listen in what we call Open Attention. We just listen, sense, observe. We may feel energy moving, a pressure building, blossoming into slow, surprising movement. We may sense our breath deepening, our tissues softening, spreading, our heart slowing, opening and warming.
If this is the effect of a little doing, is it so dangerous?
I have never experienced my heart open as fully and deeply as I have in Continuum. Even after 30 days of silent meditation, when I would emerge from the silence in tears, full of tender love and compassion, it somehow didn’t reach this same dimension.
It seems to me that the essence of mindfulness meditation is to be able to live mindfully. Meditation is not meant to be done just on the cushion; we can practice at all times. In Vipassana, we continued observing the arising and passing away of sensations while walking, eating, washing, whatever we were engaged in. We were encouraged, however, to reduce our sensuality and sexuality in life to reduce the chance of attachment. We practiced with minimal relational interaction, eyes down to the ground, as if we were alone in a cave somewhere.
I used to love serving courses, which usually meant working in the kitchen. As servers, we were instructed to speak only as needed to complete our tasks. I loved being able to apply the benefits of our meditation to our relational interactions and the challenges that presented. Isn’t it important to be able to do in our lives, as well as to not do?
How do we learn this kind of doing?
This is a doing which is also a not doing. In Continuum, the things we do are usually like gently blowing dust off a leaf. If we blow too hard, the leaf will be gone along with the dust. To be present with our doing, we need to be gentle, slow down to avoid being seduced into old patterns, stay awake to what arises.
Doing Life, Being Alive
Life involves doing. Our cells are being but they are also doing every moment. They produce substances, decide what to receive, and are highly active within and between themselves, making choices about when and how to interact with other cells in their community. Can we be like our cells, being with our doing, doing with our being?
When we stop doing, I believe we die. Something in us dies. We are designed to engage with life. Even sitting and meditating is a doing. One needs to move the body in such a way as to sit on the cushion. The meditator must eat at least occasionally. I discovered in Vipassana that I had the ability to not eat for a few days in a row, an extreme of not doing. After a few days, my body began to object and deteriorate. I realized that I needed my body function if I was to continue mediating! I could perhaps learn to be so equanimous that I could just observe the sensations of dying, as Goenka describes. In order to be aware of each moment in life, however, I must engage in living!
What this looks like will differ for each person, but I am convinced that some degree of doing is essential. If not, how do we discover our edges? How do we know where we tend to slip off the path into our habits? Even the most serious of meditators has thoughts arising here and there. Redirecting the mind when it strays, as is so often instructed in meditation, is a doing!
The question is, where do we draw the line? In our modern, western world, there are endless opportunities to do and to lose awareness. I remember as a graduate student in Somatic Psychology, learning to sense my pelvic floor. I discovered I could, with practice, write my papers from my pelvic floor, centering my awareness there. Being on a computer, however, tends to speed us up and take us away from our body awareness. How aware of your breath and your sensations are you in this moment as you read this page?
The internet speeds us up. Mobile phones, WiFi, internet television … There is no escape! In our modern world, we may not be able to get away from the over-stimulation, but we can learn to stay fluid, present and resilient. In my experience, we learn this by practicing deepening into these states and continuing them into our lives.
The challenge of doing not doing is exaggerated in Continuum when we begin to interact more fully with gravity. We do odd things like hang off of chairs and equipment designed for this purpose. As we engage in fluid fitness, pushing off the floor with hands, feet, or other random body parts, we are tempted to speed up into more familiar movement patterns. I have learned so much about presence in life by practicing staying slow and aware as I combine intentional movement with allowing the spontaneous to emerge.
But isn’t that like life? Even as babies, we intentionally reach for a toy and discover a leg spontaneously follows the reach. Soon we are crawling, challenging our parents to keep up with us.
If we consider the most subtle of doings, we find we can’t really ever stop. Even in the midst of the deepest stillness, we continue to breathe. It may be a very subtle, quiet breath, but it is there. The heart beats, a doing and not doing, from four weeks after conception until the day we die.
No, I am not ready to stop doing! May I do with not doing; may I do with awareness. May our awareness widen, our being deepen, our doing continue on the continuum of life.