Zen asks us to do a very strange thing. It asks us to ‘act without acting’. What does this mean? I’ve explained it in other articles, such as the article on Wu Wei, but sometimes we need a practical example to make things clear.
Let’s get straight. ‘Intentionless Action’ seems to be a paradox. What we’re being asked to do is to live our lives with no goals in mind. The reason? Clinging to these goals creates a state of constant anxiety, where we structure our physical and mental life so that we will either ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’. If we succeed, we’re pleased, and if we fail, we suffer. This cycle of ‘up and down’ may seem normal to us, but it is precisely what the Buddha was talking about when he spoke of Dukkha, or what we might call Samsara, or ‘suffering’. The message here is that we don’t have to bounce around like that – there is another state of mind in which there is no suffering.
But if we have no goals, then we’d never get anything done! We’d just laze around and drink beer and watch TV!
The funny thing is that someone with no goals can never be lazy – their life is always active and participatory. When we have goals, we move between times of frantic activity, trying to accomplish our aspirations, and times of stress-relief, where we ‘escape’ into television, alcohol, music, vacations, or ‘zoning out’. Even TV and alcohol aren’t necessarily bad – but when we use them to escape from our hectic lives, it’s a sure sign that something is seriously wrong.
So. How can we ever accomplish anything if we have no goals?
Let’s imagine that you have a stack of dishes in your sink. There are two ways to approach the task of doing the dishes.
In the first, which represents our usual method, we look at the dishes, sigh, and roll up our sleeves. They have to be done, after all! But since we really don’t want to do them, we feel resistance to the task. We want to get them done as soon as possible, so that we can move on to other things that are worthwhile. What we’ve done is created goals. Our goal is to get the dishes done, and since we’d like to get them done fast, it gets very frustrating when we encounter that burnt crusty area on the pan that just won’t wash off, or we drop a wine glass and have to take an extra few minutes to extract all the shards of glass from the sink. Sometimes we can work ourselves into quite a frenzy doing the dishes!
This goal of finishing the dishes is very similar to many other goals in our lives, because it promises something better when the goal is accomplished. We feel that when we get into the perfect love relationship, or attain financial independence, or get our degree, or retire – when our goal is attained, we can really start Living. Until then, we just have to make the best of a mediocre situation.
But there is another way to do the dishes. We walk over, and we just attend to doing the dishes. We don’t have to get them done. We just wash the dish we’re washing. It’s that simple. And because we’re paying attention to doing the dishes, we actually get them done faster. And because we’re being mindful, we probably won’t break that wine glass. In the end, we actually accomplish the ‘goal’ more efficiently because we weren’t intent on finishing.
In this way of living, maybe I’ll just do one dish. With no goal in mind, I’m perfectly free to do that. I’m not holding myself to any standards whatsoever. This not only makes it easy to embark on tasks in the first place, but it also means that I’ll probably end up doing them all anyway. Why? Because when my mind isn’t distracted with all the things it could be doing, it can attend to what’s actually going on. And believe it or not, doing dishes is actually an amazing experience. That is, it’s an amazing experience if we are actually Present when we’re doing them.
Much of our life is like doing dishes – the only way we can be agitated is if our mind is focused on results, on the future, or on our many goals and aspirations. Focusing on these things does not make us more productive – it actually makes us less productive because we’re spending the majority of our energy in constant patterns of circular thought and worry. If we can experience Now, we find that the only really important moment is the one we’re in.
This requires a complete overhaul of our standard ways of functioning. We can think that these standard ways are the only ways that things will ever get done in this world, and then, suddenly, we’ll be doing the dishes and we’ll recognize that the only thing that makes the experience unpleasant is that we’re eager to get done with them. That’s when, perhaps for the first time in our lives, we’ll actually do the dishes, and realize that this is what we’ve been missing out on our whole lives. We’ve been ignoring the actual sensation of Living and instead focusing on the fantasies in our imaginations – all the futures that may or may not come to be. But the saddest part is that even if those futures do come to be, we won’t be there to enjoy them, because we’ll never have learned to experience Where We Actually Are.
Whether you’re doing the dishes, preparing for the biggest business presentation of your life, or approaching your own death, there is only one place to be – Now – the place where everything is actually going on.