The fast lane, capitalist society, consumerism, the success ethic all drive us forward, urging us to seize the day, make the most of our opportunities, and reach our full potential. But even we are at leisure, having fun, meditating, or putting in some me-time, we are still bound by a never-ending desire for movement or activity. For business or pleasure, it is as though we always have to be doing something or going somewhere. Anything, anywhere would be better than doing nothing.
But doing nothing can be liberating. I am not speaking about this matter literally, which is a logical impossibility. I am referring less to letting go— not the song where you drop all inhibitions—than to abandoning the will and desire that push us forward and drive us to exert an effort, mental or physical.
Certainly, abandoning the will takes an amount of will. But slumped on this raft, I get a(nother) taste of that divestment. There is something liberating about relinquishing control, the I, the agency, the responsibility, the self that drives all activity. It is rather like “letting go and letting God” except that I entrust myself to the current.
This kind of letting go entails erasing all manner of activity, so that your mind, your sense of self is a blank. In short, you feel and are nothing. And that’s all I will say to avoid contradicting myself any further. Because even if I have named it such and written this short essay, I cannot or should not describe nothing. To do so would make it something; speaking about it would subject it to language, thought, experience, and activity. And it would only return me to where I originally was: exerting an effort (to describe it).
Perhaps this nothingness is what “nirvana” might mean in more modern times. The word “Nirvana” (nibbana in the original language, Pali, of the Buddha) is often translated as “enlightenment,” but it actually means “flaming out” or “blowing out.” And it has nothing to do with heaven or paradise, at least in the literal sense. The image is that of a flame representing desire, which had to be extinguished so that we can be free from the pain and suffering it engenders. It’s interesting to note that we speak today of burnout whenever we do too much. The fire metaphor is embedded in the word.
In a more modern age, to do nothing, to let go, to relinquish control is to blow out the fire that fuels our activities, our goals, our dreams, and to reach a different state of relaxation: a nothingness that would render us invulnerable to pain and stress. Rizal in Mi Último Adiōs writes that to die is to rest; notwithstanding the fact that he isn’t resting when he is dead — in the poem, he’s busy singing a canticle, waiting for a kiss, etc. But the line “morir es descansar” speaks of death as a kind of nothingness, where we are at peace, where faith or anything whatsoever does not kill; where nothing at all will ever happen to us, at least to our bodies.
But before dismissing all this as suicidal speak, recall that St. Paul talks of a death-in-life, where we die to ourselves every moment. Do not the Gospels speak of dying so that we may live, be born again, and have eternal life? We don’t need to take dying literally (although there may be cases where we need to take up our cross and follow Jesus to his death). Short of that, however, death here means dying to our selfishness, killing our attachment to things concrete and abstract, and putting out the fire that keeps us going.
In the same way, given its deeply spiritual sense, doing nothing does not mean lying down on rubber rafts all day and letting the currents — literal and figurative — take us wherever, whenever. By all means, let us carry on with our activities and pursue our dreams, hang out and have fun, be busy, take on challenges, and do what we love. Our lives do find meaning and everything else — joy, friendship, pain — from these encounters. But let us not be consumed and carried away by the fire and frenzy of all this activity. And it’s not just about taking a break and getting some R & R, after which we just pick up where we left off, refreshed and revitalized.
It’s also about extinguishing this flame, this obsession towards activity and motion, and realizing that we need not do the things we (want to) do. This would mean reducing a neurotic clinging to life and living it with a certain degree of detachment. By all means run, hard and fast, or walk leisurely, and love every minute of it, but know at the same time that life is not a race or a journey, and that maybe there is really no need to run or even walk at all. Metaphorically speaking of course.