This quote represents something so ingrained in the American psyche, most of us consider it to be just a natural way of thinking. From individual conduct to national policy, this in some way (and the very idea, of course, that there is a “natural” way of thinking) seems to be at the heart of the kill-‘em-all-let-god-sort-‘em-out mentality that sometimes seems to have created our very history. We say that someone is a person “of action” with not only approval but reverence, and judge anyone who doesn’t appear to be “of action” as lacking (or worse, boring).
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been as frustrated as the next person with people who know something is wrong in their lives, know (intellectually) how to fix it, yet are seemingly incapable of actually taking the necessary steps. I’ve been equally frustrated with people who can’t sit still or enjoy silence or solitude. This can’t-sit-still-busy-busy-busy approach seems to give those who embrace it an interesting sense of superiority. When I lived in New York City, I found myself caught up in the endless cycle of social engagements and having my calendar booked weeks, if not months, in advance. A lot of my friends were like this, too. In one phone call I can still remember, I spent well over thirty minutes throwing potential coffee dates back and forth with an acquaintance. Of course, we could have spent that time catching up, but we hung up our phones completely stymied.
One of the worst things that ever happened to me would become the thing that saved me from that treadmill of foolishness. I injured my foot playing racquetball, and this injury triggered a nerve condition called RSD (Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy). Without getting into all the nitty gritty details of its awfulness, suffice it to say that my life was suddenly & forcibly restricted to the bottom end of the hierarchy of needs. Since every task required at least triple the time & effort previously required, and the center of my life was unrelenting pain, I swiftly created my cardinal rule: do nothing that is not absolutely necessary. I worked. I went to physical therapy 3 times a week. I read. I became a PBS addict. Here and there, a friend would trek out to Brooklyn to sit with me, drink Southern Comfort, and marvel at the color, texture, and size of my foot.
While the experience of so much intense pain, and the anxiety that accompanied it, changed me in fundamental ways, what I’m trying to finally get to here is when I was walking normally again. When I was walking normally again, and living with substantially less pain, I was joyous in spite of the fact that my entire social life had crumbled around me. Then I was joyous because my entire social life had crumbled around me. I had time now for reading and thinking. I had time for writing again. I had time to just be still and feel the absence of pain – that sweet nothingness! I had time to contemplate what I liked and didn’t like & wonder who the hell I was & where I wanted to go. It was during this time that I first read Thoreau’s Walden and these lines:
Sometimes…I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise til noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have done. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.
I was changed by much of what Thoreau wrote in this little book, but this was one of the most important revelations for me. So much over and above my usual allowance! I had begun to discover this for myself, but now I had some sort of endorsement (which I needed then). And so began my quest for a slower, more contemplative life, a life not driven by money-making or self-importance, but discovery, experience, and self-knowledge.
I was first introduced to the Buddhist concept of emptiness a very long time ago. Or rather, I was introduced to the terminology. My first reaction to the word is negative in the extreme. Emptiness? Void. Depleted. Nothing to give. Glass half empty. Oy! When I did allow the actual concept into my consciousness as possibly valid or at least to be taken as seriously as anything else, I realized that it refers more to an emptying of all that crap that gets stuck in our consciousness that is weighing us down – psychic constipation, you might say. Anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with meditation understands at least the idea here. Emptiness is good, nothing sublime.
I think the idea of not being “of action” is associated with this in the sense that they both are related to an idea we have about nothingness. Nothing not as an absence, per se, but as something unspeakable – not evil, exactly, but unfathomable darkness and our own un-tethered, essential aloneness in the universe. To western minds, all there is to fear in life & the universe is wrapped up in this idea of nothingness. Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” demonstrates this attitude succinctly, especially in the following passage: It was a nothing he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. … Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be they name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.
Last summer, on the banks of Walden Pond, I was introduced to the I Ching. I had had a passing acquaintance with it before, but this time I learned a little something about it. It didn’t turn out to be a major transforming power in my life, but I was fascinated that the two or three questions that I posed to it within maybe a month were answered by the I Ching with some variation on the theme of sitting on my hands, letting it go, doing nothing. Even more fascinating was my realization that I had known the answer before I had even asked the question. Around the same time, my horoscopes were all about biding my time, going inward rather than outward, hibernating, taking no action. I decided to follow these guideposts, and eventually the situations I had been contemplating resolved themselves without my intervention, and probably with a better result than I could have expected otherwise. Of course, I could have figured this out without aid if I had been doing a better job keeping my own council, but I allowed my head to become cluttered with the idea of what action I should take.
As any smart farmer will tell you, allowing land to lie fallow for a season or two will benefit the land, the food that grows from it, the animals who graze it, and the people who tend it in myriad, far-reaching ways that are certainly not all quantifiable. Just as this is so, so too will our actions yield so much more when we lie fallow from time to time or refrain from what would be unproductive action. Whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed, or as though I’m spinning my wheels, I have begun to habitually stop & do the counter-intuitive thing (for most Americans, anyway): nothing. I take a walk or meditate – even a 20-minute nap in the middle of the day is sometimes sufficient to allow serenity in place of chaos, emptiness rather than clutter, the buoyancy of nothing instead of the burden of something. Sufficient, indeed, to allow the transformation of Nothing into the splendor of Everything.