On New Year’s Day I received a handmade gift: a turtle necklace. Each night I hang the turtle necklace around the neck of my cherished Kwan Yin statue, each morning I put it on again and recall the prayers of the women who gave me this gift. They said, “Turtle reminds you to go slow.”
Go slow. For the past year I have done anything but “go slow.” My ego became increasingly invested in the illusion and the chase of “making up for lost time;” my mind created big goals, long lists, and impossible deadlines. By the end of last year, stretched thin and close to snapping from anxiety and insomnia, I began to tune into a Call calling to me to “stop the world.” I began remembering a time when I spontaneously experienced the profound peace of mind that accompanies stopping the world; it was during a decade when I was dedicated to meditating twice a day, a time when the world stopped twice a day.
Stopping the World refers to stopping the way you typically see the world and your habitual way of being in it. It stops spontaneously when the internal dialogue in your mind stops; this is because words and thinking tether you to the remembered past and the imagined future—taking you out of the present moment. You’ve probably had a glimpse of stopping the mind when you were completely immersed in an activity (such as meditation, painting, playing a musical instrument, running or playing tennis, i.e., doing anything that put you “in the zone”). As you focus your mind, your thinking slows down and stops; at this point you become one with the activity itself. In other words, there is no longer a subjective-objective relationship between you and what you are doing, or you and another person. Instead you experience being in the flow, effortless effort without thoughts of gain, praise, how long it will take, and so on.
In Taoism “not doing“ is called wu-wei. Wu refers to not having, or being without. Wei means purpose, to do for the sake of, to act in accordance with social convention, and to make an effort. So wu-wei is action without striving to achieve approval, praise, a desired outcome, or spiritual gain. Alan Watts liked the translation: “not forcing.”
In wu-wei, there is an absence of self-consciousness and an ego-driven goal to achieve an outcome or to gain approval; there is no pre-planning or sticking to the plan. Rather, when the need for action appears, one dives in, does what needs to be done and nothing extra. There is no need to rush.
“Nature does not hurry,
Yet everything is accomplished.”
Wu-wei is being in the flow, being fluid like water, and like water, being able to fill the shape of any container—or moment. Being in the flow of, and feeling connected to, the divine matrix induces a feeling of calm and of “being attuned to the deepest flow of life itself.”1 On the contrary, believing yourself to be separate from the divine matrix, a blanket that covers the entire universe and every sentient being, gives way to behaving as though you are separate: avoiding, resisting, withdrawing, striving to control or compete with others, and taking up false pride or shame for outcomes which are largely out of your control.
Wu-wei cannot arise through force of intention. Intentionally trying to “not do” something is doing! Trying to substitute doing one “undesirable” thing by intentionally doing something “better” is not wu-wei because your behavior follows an ongoing internal dialogue of shoulding and strategizing—bouncing between preserving the conditioned past and striving for gain in the imagined future. In so doing, you cannot be “not doing,” i.e., just doing what needs to be done—and nothing extra.
Don’t confuse “not doing” with procrastination or being lazy—or living in solitude on a mountain. In the practice of “not doing” you see what needs to be done next, and without planning or overthinking it, you dive into doing the ordinary tasks of living, without being driven to check it off your list. Immersion in the activity is likened to being “in the zone” for athletes. The action taken is effortless, egoless; the mind is calm without anxiety if it doesn’t get done or pride if it does.
Stopping the World in Labor
Elevated levels of oxytocin and endorphins in labor naturally pave the way to
a wordless state of mind—gradually turning a woman’s attention inward. As the hours pass, rhythmical waves of uterine contractions focus a woman’s attention on a meditation, pain-coping technique, music, or a mindfulness practices she has learned; this mental focus nurtures an even greater subduing of mind chatter. At first, doing a mindfulness practice while in pain requires tremendous intention and effort driven by a goal to relax or to be more comfortable, or to avoid using drugs. But, as labor progresses, the hormonal haze helps the ego and goals dissolve, and she may notice a shift from doing with effort, doubt, and struggle to effortless, mindless “not doing,” not trying hard to relax. When the world and the mind stop, she is in the zone, in the flow; she may feel connected with all women who have ever given birth and all of nature. Instead of being in labor, she becomes one with the activity of labor.
Stopping the world at any time in life is a profound, spontaneous, indescribably serene and often ecstatic experience. In labor, it becomes the wind beneath your wings allowing the mind to get out of the way while the body breathes and births the baby into the world. Stopping the world allows the initiate to see what she has not seen before, and to know what to do when she doesn’t know what to do during this great spiritual rite of passage. Although stopping the world in labor may arise spontaneously when all conditions are right, and “not doing” is not something the ego can force, it behooves the wise Birth Warrior to take up stilling the mind as a Task of Preparation so the mind and spirit know the way. When surrender comes into you in labor, it is a Gift from Grace, from the Holy.
Task of Preparation: Cultivating Stopping the Mind or “Not Doing”
Suzuki Roshi said that enlightenment was an accident,
but meditation makes us accident prone.
Everyone has had glimpses of wu-wei. But, the seductive power of the internal dialogue makes it difficult to maintain. Ironically, by striving to maintain wu-wei, you move away from it. The hero within can refuse the Call to stop the world by believing the internal chatter that tells her that she is too busy to do this now, or that feeds her impatience when it does not come easily. But, for the hero-within who is ready to Answer this Call, there are many daily practices that can be likened to the planting and daily watering of seeds that will bear an abundance of nourishing fruit.
If the calm mind of “not doing” follows a quiet mind, then one approach to inviting being in the flow and to increase the likelihood of it happening is to take up practices that quiet the mind. Cultivate your ability to focus the mind for longer periods of time through being still in daily meditation, by feeling connected to—not separate from—everything and everyone, and by observing the natural world.
In Carlos Castenada’s book, Journey to Ixtlan, the wise Yaqui Indian, don Juan, explains that when a man of Knowledge stops doing what he habitually has been doing, he “stops the world.” Castenda describes how don Juan introduced him to the practice:
“. . . [don Juan] pointed to a large bush and told me to fix my attention not on the leaves but on the shadows of the leaves . . . He repeated over and over in a whisper in my right ear that ‘to not do what I knew how to do’ was the key to power. In the case of looking at a tree, what I knew how to do was to focus immediately on the foliage. The shadows of the leaves or the spaces in between the leaves were never my concern. . . .[I started] focusing on the shadows of the leaves of one single branch and then eventually worked my way to the whole bush, not letting my eyes go back to the leaves, because the first deliberate step to storing personal power was to allow the body to ‘not do.’”
If you tend to be a Gatherer as a way of knowing or preparation, i.e., gathering information and facts, perhaps a first deliberate step for you will be “not gathering,” which may open the way to less thinking, to “not thinking,” which opens the way to “not knowing” and a watchful quiet, witnessing state of mind.
Practice sensing and connecting with the world immediately around you during an activity by immersing yourself in the sensory experience of the environment and the activity, any activity: cooking, cleaning, painting, gardening, or walking. Since the mind has to do something, give it something else to do in the immediate present moment so you don’t listen to the ordinary, habitual internal dialogue. (Non) Focused Awareness is an excellent wordless, mindfulness meditation designed to help you stop the world.