Most of us are habitual doers; we want to be in control, get somewhere and have something to show for it. We live in a world where self-improvement is a high priority and our accomplishments are the measure of our worth. When we hear that the very concepts of doer and doing lose their relevance on the spiritual path and that practice does not produce transformation, it becomes ever more difficult to comprehend. In the modern world we search unceasingly for answers, experiences, insights, and attainment, so claims that there is nowhere to go and nothing to gain can be baffling. And those engulfed in suffering, when told that change and improvement are not only unnecessary but antithetical to enlightenment, often find such paradoxical guidance perplexing, if not outright callous. How are we to do anything without doing? Do we make an effort not to make an effort? Can the aims of freedom and an end to suffering be gained without any attempt to gain them?
Mystical practices are designed to shed the light of awareness on the constructs and habitual patterns of thought that imprison us. Paradoxically, though, the techniques are constructs themselves, each including the perception of a doer, prescribed actions for the doer to take, and goals to be achieved with effort and perseverance. By their very existence, these techniques make a distinction between the state from which we begin and the preferred state to which we are directed. In other words, while purporting to open a window to the unconditioned, they are themselves essentially dualistic, the very state we are trying to leave.
The more effort we make, the more we strain to control what happens in our practice, the further away we get from what is. We become so busy doing that we forget being. Always looking ahead, we overlook where we are. We think we can divide and conquer: increasing the good and eliminating the bad, adding this and subtracting that. But every attempt is futile. Such actions are firmly anchored in the world of time—aspiring to be where we are not, looking to the future for spiritual fulfillment. We are like a cat chasing its tail, not realizing that its own movements are keeping the tail out of reach. Effort to change what is, by itself, reinforces the very delusion that we need to unravel: our existence as a separate self.
The principle of non-doing has little currency in Western society, but a sense of it can be found in activities like playing music or sports. We sometimes hear musicians talk about “forgetting themselves” during performances or say that the music “plays itself.” Playing with their eyes closed, and engaged in a long and beautiful piece, they seem lost in the flow of beautiful music. In sports, when players exhibit extraordinary skill and perform above their normal level of play, they are said to be “in a zone.” The key lies in the construct of the doer. When they are no longer self-conscious, no longer looking over their shoulder or second-guessing themselves, life takes over with a naturalness and fluidity that is immediately apparent to all.
Is it by the ocean’s grace that the wave finds the shore or the creek winds its way back to its source? The answer lies in the law of existence, the way things are, what Buddhists call the Dharma. The key to the gateless gate is not turned by our actions or efforts. There is no secret formula, no expedient we need to find, and no “skillful means” that will enable us to cross to the other side of the veil. The entrance is blocked until naked awareness, the beginning and end of the human experience, allows us to see it has never been closed. Nothing needs to be done.