Doing nothing and surrender are commonly confused by many people on the spiritual path, and I felt like it warranted a blog post to help distinguish between inaction and non-action. This distinction is aimed at helping you better understand the fluidity of life and embracing action and inaction through the lens of non-action.
The space of the witness is non-action. That place of presence is never acting. If you don’t believe me, go to that space now. Notice how it perceives everything yet it doesn’t move. It doesn’t change. It’s totally surrendered and offering no resistance to anything. It’s simply there.
This practice of witnessing and resting in that space of non-action is often practiced by doing less or being relatively inactive. I say, “relatively inactive,” because the human body is never totally inactive. Blood and oxygen keep pumping through us. A whole flurry of activity is generally going on with cell production, immune defense, and so much more. Seriously, human beings are a constant whirlwind of action, so we never are completely inactive. It’s just that at times we sit in meditation or other low-activity situations to pay attention and to notice this space that is observing all activities.
However, being aware of the space of non-action doesn’t inhibit our ability to act. Some people confuse inaction with this space. They believe they don’t have to do anything to be spiritual, and they’re partly right. But they’re also partly wrong. Others believe that doing nothing is spiritual, and that’s mostly wrong. So let’s get into this topic.
Westerners have a huge addiction to action. People are constantly filling up their time with all kinds of stimuli, and many are terrified of being unproductive. Because of this, the over-arching suggestion of a lot of spiritual teachers is to practice meditation and other spiritual tools to slow people down. In a different cultural context, the over-arching suggestion from spiritual teachers could be to do more if a culture is particularly lazy or adverse to taking action. So really, Westerners–which are the largest portion of my following–have half the story right. Taking action to create things is powerful, and it allows us to shape and define our world in interesting ways.
If we do not understand ourselves, how can we take conscious actions? How do we know what we are creating or why? The emphasis on endless productivity begs the question of why do we need to do so much. Unfortunately, for many, the answer has become, “that’s what we’re supposed to do.” So, the spiritual recommendations for less action–a relative kind of inaction–are part of the medicine that is necessary for hyper-active Westerners and anyone in any culture where they are caught up doing things. They have to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. And sometimes, they’ll discover that they’re living in a space where roses aren’t what they’re smelling. It’s something else entirely, and it needs attention.
Finding Excuses for Spiritual Laziness
Obviously, I’m using huge generalizations, and I’m doing that to illuminate why some people come to the conclusion that they don’t have to do anything. Because of the greater Western cultural emphasis on doing less, those people who have a lot of inert energy and don’t like to do things may decide that this recommendation means they don’t have to do anything. But in their case, doing less and being inactive is self-avoidance. It’s life avoidance.
The truth for each person is slightly different, and that’s why self-honesty is so key to truly walk the spiritual path. People have to learn to be honest with themselves, and sitting and meditating–when done appropriately–help to illuminate a lot of people’s thoughts and tendencies. So a person can certainly meditate without being lazy, but if they realize that they’re running out of money, avoiding a difficult talk with their mother, or ignoring something else, then they have to take action. To not take action or to try and hide in some of their spiritual practices is avoidance. While the Divine embraces all of us as spiritual beings regardless of what we do or don’t do, avoidance tends to create suffering for people, and the true spiritual path guides us to freedom from suffering.
Additionally, the idea that the universe will just give a person everything by doing nothing has been grossly misunderstood. From time to time, I talk about the bounty that arises naturally from the space of presence (You can check out the post below on that very topic). But this is referring to people who generally have overcome certain issues that block their growth. It is also referring to the arising of love, humility, compassion, wisdom, inner peace, and other qualities that help guide our actions. This idea doesn’t refer to money dropping from heaven and all the things the ego wants showing up at their doorstep. That’s just wishful thinking.
In short, action is part of life, and denial of action gets people stuck in their spiritual development and causes endless other kinds of problems.
Observing the Fear to Act
There are just so many fears, but one of the fears involved with inaction and laziness is the fear to act. For whatever reason, a person simply doesn’t want to act. They’re afraid of a bad outcome. They feel comfortable doing very little. They are afraid of some kind of responsibility if they start taking action. People who are stuck in the mode of being a child often have this last issue, and people can stay stuck in child-mode for their whole lives. I’ve run across more than a few 60 and 70 year-old children.
This fear to act can easily stick around someone’s whole life, but in the space of spiritual clarity, we learn to see these things. We learn to face them. Facing the fear to act is about taking action, and for more than a few of my readers, I would say that whatever you know you need to do and are avoiding, today is the day! Do it! Don’t wait for God to do things for you. That’s not how life or the spiritual path work.
Ultimately, inaction and action are a dance. We can also call this receptivity and action. Sometimes, we receive from life more, and sometimes we act more. That’s how it is. The spiritual path helps us to do both consciously.
The Space of Non-action and Finding Clarity
As mentioned earlier, non-action is the state of presence. It’s never moving or changing. It simply is. We practice being in that space when we’re mostly inactive at first to learn to pay attention to it. As you realize that this presence is always with you, you can be aware of that space of non-action any time. You can do it when you are playing football. You can do it sewing. You can do it talking to your child/children. That space is never in opposition to a particular experience of life. Actually, drawing attention to that space tends to make everything clearer.
From that clarity, it’s easier to know when to act or not. It’s easier to know when to rest or create. The whole dance of living a human life gets easier to flow with as you notice when the Divine is leading you or when you need to take a little more lead in your life. So I can only encourage you to trust this flow between action and rest. Getting stuck in one or the other shows an issue, and if you get stuck in inactivity in particular, go within. Find the issue, and then take action.