On Not Doing

On Not Doing, by Simone Melanie

Find the beautiful hand written version, with a full list of references, here.


‘Don’t just do something

Sit There’ Thick Nat Hanh

Recent reveries have rekindled the spark of joy that I find in contemplating, and practicing, the ‘art of doing nothing’ or ‘wuwei’ as the Daoists call it.

Over the years I have found the practices that have inspired and helped me the most have all started with Doing Nothing. The Alexander Technique, Biodynamic Gardening, Permaculture, Tai Chi, Chi Gong, the Seven Medicines, and most recently, yoga, all begin with a period of stillness, of doing nothing – whether it be for a few minutes or a few years.

The act of doing nothing is not a passive act, of lying vacant on the sofa, but an active state.

‘An active engagement with things as they are’ Solala Towler.

By holding the possibility of an action, and having a deep awareness of what is happening around us, we can then make the best decision possible as to what to do next.

‘True quiet means keeping still when the time has come to keep still, and going forward when the time has come to go forward.’ Hexagram 52, I Ching.

‘We are not to opt out, not in a sleep, not in a trance – but very much alive’ Miss Goldie, Alexander Technique instructor.

Gerda Geddess, a Tai Chi teacher, describes it as a ‘pregnant emptiness.’ Within this space there is a possibility of something to come. Rushing ahead will only mean things are premature, unripe, unready. Even before the Big Bang, there was the ‘ultimate nothingness,’

but ‘certainly something’.

How then can we learn to know the benefit of ‘resorting to no action. The teaching that uses no words?’ 43, Tao Te Ching

One day is ‘to do [ourselves] a favour and do nothing for 20 minutes a day.’ Aui Michin, Buddhist Nun.

I find the best time to do this is first thing in the morning, before anyone else is awake, before the hustle and bustle of the day creeps in. You don’t have to formally meditate, just sitting and relaxing, allowing thoughts to come and go is of benefit. Having a cup of tea always helps too (see Cha Dao ‘The Way of Tea’ and ‘Tea as a Way of Life’ by S. Towler). You can try and carry this relaxed state into your day.

Doing nothing can also be practiced on the bus or in the car. On the bus is great as you don’t have to do anything except look out of the window and relax. If you are driving you can practice at the red lights, turn your engine off or put the gear in neutral, relax your hands into your lap,


relax some more.

I used to feel anxious about when the lights would change, until I heard herbalist Susan Weed say not to worry because the people behind you would let you know soon enough. So now I really do enjoy the few moments to relax,


and see what blessings are growing nearby.

‘This ability to brighten the spirit, to lighten the load of the human predicament, to make it more bearable, is a medicine that many people need, and this quality should never be overlooked in a plant.’ Stephen Harrod Bukner

Frederik Alexander was always being asked what people should do for good posture – but the question was really what they should not do that was key.

We can take a moment before we stand, sit, get out of bed, to relax; To Not Do. Then we can move more mindfully, and have better posture.

There are numerous examples of how not to do. Some of my favourites include:

bird watching

looking at the stars

watching the sea, waves, clouds, flames of fire,

children playing


Great locations for doing nothing can be found:

at the bus stop,

in the queue at the supermarket,

waiting for the kettle to boil,

in the garden, park, woods…

One of the reasons that I find doing nothing is beneficial to me is that I notice so much more. In my house, garden, on the pavement. One of the biggest changes it has brought to me is that I’m more aware in my medicine making and prescribing.

I stop and spend time with a plant before harvesting from it – what part should I use? Are there insects living there? How much to take? Once the medicine is made I can take a moment before using it. Is it the right medicine to use? If so, how much should I have? (See Seven Medicines, by Susan Weed).

By not doing in my first step, I find I make less mistakes in my second step.

Finally, what keeps me practicing is seeing some of my teachers and old ascetics who exude a sense of calmness and stillness that is awe-inspiring.

Yong Cheng Fu, Tai Chi teacher, describes it beautifully. In Tai Chi we want to see:

‘Motion in Stillness and Stillness in Motion.’

We are aiming to create no ripples as we move, and this is what I see in the old Buddhist nuns for example. Even in their physical actions they exude a stillness, a not doing, that I want to bring into my life as much as possible.

‘silence is the place,

the focus,

of the radical encounter

with the divine.’

Sara Maitland

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