My Uncle Buddha
The Passive Activist


If we had more time to let our problems dissolve, maybe we wouldn’t do so many stupid things.  We’re always in action, pushing forward, compelled to excel — never stopping to ask ourselves if what we’re doing is worth the result.

Our mantra is in constant motion. (Imagine immensities.  Don’t compromise.  Don’t waste time.  Work as hard as you can.  Start now.)

My Uncle Buddha (who really wasn’t my uncle, but that’s for another time) worked as hard as he could... most of the time. When he wasn’t restoring clocks, or growing succulents, or building houses, he was looking for other things to do.  “Do what you love,” he said, “unless you’re a psychopath.”

One day, I asked Uncle Buddha what he loved to do the most.  “Stare into space,” he said.  “I like to do nothing.”

I laughed and I still do.  It seemed crazy to me at the time — loving doing nothing.  But later I discovered my Uncle was like the original Buddha .  In fact, I decided he was Buddha  — if Buddha lived in the San Fernando Valley in the 1960s and worked as an auto mechanic.

The original Buddha practiced doing nothing (or as the Buddhists like to say “non-doing”).  That doesn’t mean the original Buddha was lazy.  It means that he knew how to “do nothing” right. He understood that doing nothing — letting things go — isn’t necessarily a negative.  The original Buddha achieved non-action by not craving and not clinging.  He knew when to shut down.  Craving and clinging begets stress, anxiety and their sidekick, suffering.  According to the original Buddha, cut the craving and clinging out of your emotional diet and you will be on the path to timeless peace, compassion and wisdom.  Or as Uncle Buddha said, “Doing nothing gives me a time out.”

A life spent in the perpetual do-fix-arrange-control mode perpetually preoccupies your future.  Unending expectations, goals, fantasies, and criticisms swell your head and distract you from sensing who, what and where you are.  Doing nothing fixes all of that.  Doing nothing, by the way, doesn’t mean hiking or skateboarding or drawing or taking a bath or watching Portlandia, or listening to me).  Those are just minor forms of doing something and doing something is good.  It often puts food on the table, and sometimes feathers in your hair.  Doing nothing, however, will give you space — a time outside of expectations — and maybe an insight into how to make those feathers or that food better.

Doing nothing is like rebooting.  Not only can it help restore your desktop, but it can reveal the overlooked or unthought.  It can heal.  It can create.  It’s like a period to end the sentence.  Without out it, you just run on.

Uncle Buddha didn’t run on.  He was refreshed after doing nothing.  Sometimes, doing nothing dissolved his problems.  As a result, he didn’t do many stupid things in his life.  He was busy with a purpose.  And when he wasn’t busy, he had a purpose, too.  You might even say, he was an inactivist.

“Would you like to learn how to do nothing? Uncle Buddha asked.

I learned from the master.

Uncle Buddha advised starting slowly.  “You could hurt yourself if you tried to do nothing too fast,” he said.  “It’s best not to think about.  Catch yourself by surprise.  The best place to start doing nothing is when you’re waiting.  That way you’ve already got the free time.  Say, you’re waiting at the doctor’s office:  Don’t read a magazine.  Don’t check your email.  Don’t pull up an app. Don’t check facebook.  Don’t think about what you need to do later. Just wait and do nothing. Empty your head.  Get back to zero.”

I took Uncle Buddha’s advice.  Soon, I was doing nothing with the best of them.  I got to know myself better, too and I think I’m a better person for it.

Now, if you haven’t already, try doing nothing yourself. 

Turn off the radio.  Take a deep breath.  Let your mind go.  Do nothing.

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast November 23, 2012

© / Nathan Callahan / all rights reserved


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