The non-doing paradox

If only it were as simple as choosing being over doing.

The non-doing paradox is neatly summed up by Steven Underwood’s comment in response to my last post.

We have to do in order to live. And yet we have to be in order to live, too. And isn’t being a form of doing anyway?

It’s also worth acknowledging that the so-called doing-mentality is not just hard-wired in American culture, but hard-wired in human biology as well.

According to evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, and other people who give TED Talks, our brains evolved to respond to environmental stimuli in ways that increase our chances of survival. Over countless generations we got pretty good at doing. But at a certain point — probably long before the heyday of the Protestant work ethic — this adaptive capacity began to fold in on itself, at least in part.

Especially under modern social and economic conditions, too much doing appears to make us sick. We lose sight of ourselves as human beings, and the prevalence of technology makes it seem that age-old modes of being are obsolete, inaccessible, or just plain boring.

This is a cultural problem as much as a quirk of human evolution. Yet the solution is not to disavow doing.

Many things are worth doing, and worth doing well. Cleaning floors, cooking dinner, writing, raising children, and contributing to the world in other worthwhile ways.

Perhaps the real problem is how we define meaning. In other words, what constitutes doing something worthwhile?

In line with Steven Underwood’s example of the research scientist motivated by a desire to reduce human suffering, Buddhists follow a framework of meaning called The Eightfold Path.

According to Sylvia Boorstein, author of It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness, this consists of living — being and doing — in accordance with the following eight virtues:

Right Understanding

Right Aspiration

Right Action

Right Speech

Right Livelihood

Right Effort

Right Concentration

Right Mindfulness

I’m still grasping through a novice’s ignorance at some clear comprehension of what this means. But it’s the kind of work in progress I think is worthwhile.