On Doing Nothing

(This is the written version of the podcast I did for my publisher, Galley Beggar Press. If you’d rather listen to it, you can do so on Soundcloud or Stitcher.)

Could you just sit still for half an hour. Just that. Sit still, without distraction or interruption? For thirty minutes. No phone, no screen, no music, no voices. Could you?

And if you did just sit still, and do nothing, what do you think it would be like inside you? Do you think you’d be calm about the doing-nothing, or do you think, as is often the case with me, you would start to be overtaken by an anguish of impatience to do something, do anything? Scratch, jump up and scream. All of your head, every part of your body, would it be calm and silent in the doing-nothing or would it be filled with the rage to crack a joke, rejoin life?

I’m going to talk for a little while about sitting still, doing nothing.

First, I need to tell you a bit about how and why I started to do this doing-nothing. And that’s because I ended up being the particular kind of Buddhist I am – which is a Soto Zen Buddhist, in the lineage of a Japanese monk called Dōgen – which is the kind of Buddhist who, generally, just sits still.

Soto Zen Buddhism is a very minimal non-religion. It’s a practice. Following it (if you can even say that) means as often as I’m able, usually once a day, I do something called zazen – which is meditating, of a particular kind. Zazen translates roughly from Japanese as just sitting. Half an hour a day of zazen is my aim, and I meet it about 50% of the time. I just sit, facing a wall or, in my work room, the bottom half of a green baize noticeboard.

Why do I do this? Why do I waste my time doing nothing, producing nothing? This is hard to answer – I’m not sure myself. But the most direct way of putting it is that I agree with the Buddha. Or at least, I agree with what I’ve come to know about what he said, though translations, from Sanskrit into English. More exactly, I’ve come to agree with what the Buddha is said to have said about human suffering. I think it is the most practical, and possibly the wisest thing anyone has said on the subject – the subject of humans, as well as the subject of suffering.

Before I talk about the Buddha and all that milarkey, I’d like to explain a little of how I came to this agreement with what he said. I didn’t start out in a Buddhist family – very far from it.

My father had no religious faith, and did nothing like meditation – unless driving up and down the M1 and M6 for hours and days at a time, listening Jimmy Stewart on Radio 2, put him into something like a trance. My father has always been fairly brutal about an afterlife. ‘When I’m gone, just shove me in a box, have done with it’ – that kind of statement came up regularly during my boyhood. Suffering was something a man dealt with manfully, by ignoring it or saying bugger and hitting something inanimate.

My mother’s religious faith was always a mystery to me. She loved choral music in the Anglican tradition. As a girl growing up in Hereford, she sang in the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford. I still have her score for Handel’s Messiah. Then, later on, she sang in the choir at St Albans’ Cathedral – St Albans, where she met and fell in love with my Dad. They were married only twelve weeks later – in a church. However, although I think my mother was secretly a bit mystical, I don’t think she believed in God. When she was on her deathbed, in a hospice, no longer able to speak, hardly able to swallow, one of the nurses came in and asked if she’d like to see the vicar. Somehow, with a wry grimace and a flicking-off-a-fly gesture of her thin fingers, my mother made it perfectly clear she had absolutely no need for him or his buzzing sort. Everyone in the room laughed. This was probably the last joke my mother ever made. After this, she soon stopped communicating. I’m going to have to return to her deathbed a bit later on – in reference to just sitting, doing nothing.

After meeting in St Albans, my parents moved to Ampthill, Bedfordshire. This was so they could run an antiques shop in Dunstable Street. I spent my first five years living in the small flat above the shop. We stayed in Ampthill during the 1970s and ‘80s. Ampthill is a village – much larger now than it used to be. It centres on a crossroads, with a weather-vane-topped clock tower in the middle.

There are two big parks, The Furze and Ampthill Park, very different places, one a scrubby heath, the other an elegant country park, and there were plenty of other green spots, some of which are still accessible. And so I found Ampthill a wonderful place, whilst I was into climbing trees and playing war games in the semi-wild; once I’d got into bands, and the idea of girls, the idea of having a girlfriend and not being lonely as only a Cocteau Twins fan can be lonely, I found Ampthill a crappy place. I couldn’t talk about Keats’s poetry with a tree. Ampthill was boring. Also, I wasn’t really all that safe in Ampthill. I went to state schools until I was eleven years-old, then a single private school until I was seventeen. This change from Alameda School to Bedford Modern School meant, in the eyes of the kids I’d been playing football with a few weeks before, that I’d suddenly become ‘posh’. This in turn meant that if I was spotted on the streets of Ampthill I might be shouted at or roughed up.

All this is really to say that after starting at Bedford Modern School, I spent a lot of time in my bedroom; either there or at my friend Luke’s house. Luke had been my best friend since I was four. We both went to Russell Primary School – although I’m told we first met in the bakery on Dunstable Street, within sight of the antiques shop my father and mother owned and ran, and above which I lived with my two younger sisters. Me and Luke had climbed a lot of trees and won a lot of actionous battles together.

Luke was a genius – at least, that’s how he seemed to me. I admired and adored him. He came up with the best ideas for games. Later on, he played piano. He wrote poems and songs. He read books I wouldn’t otherwise have heard of – Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, for example. And among the ones I borrowed and read were Lobsang Rampa’s books – The Third Eye, The Saffron Robe and You, Forever. These detailed the life and training of a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and were full of saffron robes and astral travel, tsampa and flags flying above the Potala in Lhasa. I found out a little later that they were bogus – not written by a Tibetan lama at all, but by an English plumber.

Luke’s productivity – the boxes of poems on narrow-lined A4 paper, the concept albums recorded directly onto C90 cassettes – became greater the closer his parents got to divorce. Around the age of twelve or thirteen, Luke took up TM, Transcendental Meditation. He learned this from someone, a guru I suppose, based in Milton Keynes. Luke’s mother must have driven him to and from the meditation sessions. He learned something called Mindful Breathing which, today, has taken over the corporate world as ‘mindfulness’. It’s a very simple thing to do; you’ve probably tried it. You sit as comfortably as you can, and pay close, gentle attention to your in-breaths and out-breaths. You count them in groups of ten. With Luke, I and my other friends would sit, sticks of Spiritual Sky incense spreading layers of smoke out across his tidy attic room.

Cut to, years later. I was in Edinburgh for the Book Festival, now in my thirties. I’d started writing, like Luke did, and has stuck to it until it became just about everything. At this time I was putting together the stories that made up the book called I play the drums in a band called okay. From story to story, the main character, Clap, becomes a practising Buddhist. I decided to go to a ‘taster session’ – I think it was called that – run by the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. We sat on squishy saffron-coloured zafu cushions, on oblong mats; a Buddhist nun took us through a basic form of meditation; a small brass bell was rung when the time was up. I expected it all to be quite new and strange, but it was pretty much exactly what Luke had brought back from Milton Keynes to Ampthill twenty years earlier. It was familiar. It was what I’d done when I’d done what I called ‘meditating’ during the years in-between.

After this, a little embarrassed, I bought a mat and a zafu.

We’re now coming up to the point I described in my book Wrestliana, which Galley Beggar published last year.

The Totleigh Barton centre in Devon is a medium-sized white farmhouse that once belonged to the poet Ted Hughes.

I was there in the summer of 2005 with the novelist Ali Smith, teaching a residential creative writing course for the Arvon Foundation…

Both Ali and I had novels that had been entered for that year’s Booker Prize. Hers was called Hotel World, mine was called Ghost Story. We also shared the same publisher and the same editor.

I had tried to prevent myself going too often to the computer in the centre’s office, and checking the Booker website, to see if the longlist had been announced. I had wanted to avoid knowing when the announcement would be made – I knew it was imminent.

One morning, halfway through the week, Ali (who hadn’t been going to the centre’s office at all) got a phone call, then another phone call, then another. I knew this because, at Totleigh Barton, there is only one small patch of grass within which you could get a phone signal – and that patch was right outside the converted goose shed in which I dormed. Ali was on the phone all morning. My phone did not ring.

When I checked the website, Hotel World was longlisted, Ghost Story wasn’t.

For the rest of the week, Ali was extraordinary. She didn’t tell the Arvon students of her listing. She commiserated with me in a way I found genuinely consoling.

On the morning she spoke on the phone to everyone congratulating her, I was fiercely jealous. I was burning with resentment.

So, I went for a walk.

I’d been to Totleigh Barton before, and I knew there was a longish hike down high-hedged country lanes that took you round in a big circuit.

It was what I needed. I set off.

The day was blue sky gorgeous. I tried to let it cheer me up, but I just became angrier and angrier. I was a failure. My efforts to write the novel had been a waste. If I couldn’t even get longlisted – and it was a long longlist – what was the point? Ghost Story was just as good as Hotel World, wasn’t it? Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps I was rubbish, and no one had told me. Perhaps I should give up writing. But Ghost Story wasn’t a bad book. Round and round, the same thoughts.

I knew that this was an important moment. I wasn’t sure I’d ever write a better book than Ghost Story – so this might have been my last chance to win a big literary prize and become one of those writers who seem, for a while, to be everywhere, to be the writer everyone should read. And who, for the rest of their writing lives, can be reasonably certain of being published and making a living and having a house that doesn’t need a lot of fixing.

I felt shit.

I kept walking.

And then, fairly desperately, I remembered what are known as the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths…

I knew about the first Truth, which said that suffering was inevitable, and the second Truth, that explained how suffering arose – that suffering comes from not getting what you want.

I was so jealous of Ali, one of the people I like best in the world, and so angry that my own book – that I – hadn’t been recognised, that I was suffering an extraordinary amount of pain.

Unnecessary pain.

I looked at the green hedgerows and kept walking. Everything around me looked wonderful. It was a fantastic day. I was healthy. My family was safe.

Not a word of my book or Ali’s book was different than it had been before.

Why was I angry? What exactly did I want? Wasn’t I, right then, the clearest possible example of suffering through wanting something intangible?

I had allowed myself to become attached to something non-existent, and now I was suffering not because of anything I’d lost but because of not having gained this non-existent thing.

Being longlisted would have been good for my writing career, but I doubted it would have boosted me as much as not being longlisted was killing me.

I decided to accept I wasn’t going to be a winner. Not just in this case, with this prize, but possibly, probably, with every prize from now on.

It would be too much to say that I came back from that walk a Buddhist. But I had wrestled with myself. And the only thing that had given me any purchase was an idea of the Buddha’s.

I thought his Truths might have some truth in them.

I always felt this section of the book was a bit truncated, and isolated. The Buddhist thing isn’t really mentioned afterwards. If anyone was curious about whether I’d followed through on my insight, they wouldn’t really have got an answer.

Both after and before this moment – you can call it an epiphany if you like – I read a number of books on Buddhism and more specifically Zen Buddhism. I hated the idea of spiritual shopping. I wasn’t looking to curate a bespoke set of religious practices. Whatever it was, I should go to it, rather than expect it to come to me. The two most important books, as I think they are to a lot of Zen Buddhists, were Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki and The Path is the Goal: A Basic Handbook of Buddhist Meditation by Chögyam Trungpa. With both, I found bits of them very annoying, and slightly evasive or vague, but I read and re-read them. By now I must have read the Suzuki book five or six times. What they both emphasized, and what I was eventually convinced by, was that the point of zazen – of the sitting still – was not to try to gain anything. It wasn’t about achieving enlightenment, or finding peace of mind, or better core strength, or better sleep. The purpose of zazen was zazen.

The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, as summarised in Damien Keown’s Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, are these:

(1) life is suffering. (2) suffering is caused by craving. (3) suffering can have an end, and (4) there is a path which leads to the end of suffering.

I wasn’t sure that all life was suffering. Some of my life seem to have been fairly pleasant, and without a downside. But I knew for certain that a lot of my suffering was caused by craving – fame, praise, money, love.

And so I started to find these so-called ‘truths’ convincing, undeniable. Other religions acknowledge suffering, but then divert you into attending places of worship and deepening your faith through being public about it. Buddhism, by contrast, gave a practical inner method for dealing with the arising of suffering. It didn’t require attendance anywhere, or a profession of faith. It didn’t require any metaphysical beliefs.

My suffering during the Arvon week had been exacerbated by a purely artificial desire. I couldn’t do anything about it – until I found that I could.

I was ridiculous in my own eyes.

After that week, I was what you might call a back bedroom Buddist. I did the zazen, read the books. But eventually, I wanted to make some form of contact with other people doing the same thing – people who might have reached the same point. One of the Buddhist chants goes:

I take refuge in the Buddha

I take refuge in the Dharma

I take refuge in the Sangha

The Dharma is another word for the way, the following of whatever it is. The Sangha is the Buddhist community. I had no community – I had my Buddha statue, my mat and my zafu.

I was already fairly sure that the kind of Buddhism that accorded most closely with the Four Noble Truths, as I understood them, was Soto Zen Buddhism. This isn’t anything pure. The Buddha lived near what is, in the present day, Varanasi, in the North of India. His teaching then passed through China, where it became Chan Buddhism, and then Japan, where that was changed to Zen. The version I had picked up on was the export version that reached America in the 1950s, influenced the Beat Writers, and then became popular again in the 1970s and ‘80s. Both Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and The Path is the Goal take the form of transcribed talks to American students of zen. They’re occasionally punctuated by lines like:

Well, there’s a difference between sitting and “hanging out” in the American idiom. The term hanging out means something like “grooving on your own scene.”

First, in looking for the sangha, I went along to the Jamyang Buddhist Centre, near Elephant and Castle. The event was a talk by an American nun. There was a very large gold statue of the Buddha, and an altar of saffron and gold. But throughout her talk, the nun went on about gains – gains from practise, gains of calm and happiness. I realised I didn’t need to make a choice, I had already decided. I wasn’t engaged in spiritual shopping, because I was already sold on one very specific, non-goal oriented version of Buddhism. No gains. If you’re after gains, you’re in the wrong place.

(2) Suffering is caused by craving

It seemed very clear to me that craving for peace of mind was a craving like any other. You could say this was a good thing, if it prompted you to do zazen, but it was still a wish for gain. And that wish – either when fulfilled or thwarted – returned you to craving again, to more suffering. Only a form of Buddhism that promised nothing would fit with these words, the second of the Four Noble Truths. As far as I could see, if you sit down to meditate in hopes of achieving enlightenment, then you’re about as far from enlightenment as you could possibly be.

This may seem a bit Jesuitical. It brings a person to a difficult point. You must not desire not to desire not to desire, etcetera – something like that. What simplifies things is the practice. You do the sitting, you do the doing-nothing. And, at moments, completely unpredictably, you fall into something I can only describe as enlightenment. It goes, though.

I am not saying that I’m enlightened, as if that’s a permanent state of smug spiritual achievement. I’ve just come to conclude what was obvious even in the titles of the first books I read. Zen Mind is Beginner’s Mind, and The Path is the Goal.

Shunryu Suzuki said,

The most important thing is to forget all gaining ideas, all dualistic ideas. In other words, just practice zazen in a certain posture. Do not thing about anything. Just remain on your cushion without expecting anything.

That’s page 49 of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

When you’ve spent many years distorting yourself into as many grotesque postures of originality as possible, it is an abrupt, sobering thing to realise someone was a lot more right than you will ever be – by being simple and obvious. You do have to go to it, whatever it is, rather than expecting it to come to you, or for you to be able to invent it from scratch. What I went to was this – an impure Buddhism, beginning with a curious encounter with the bogus texts of Lobsang Rampa, the second-hand mindful breathing of Transcendental Meditation, then through words that had travelled through India, China, Japan and America before reaching England. The dojo I attend has its administrative head in France.

I’m not saying that if you yourself are doing meditation in hopes of achieving or practising mindfulness, you’re not doing something actively bad. However, I am made uneasy when I hear people talking about the benefits they feel from learning meditation. They talk about it as if it were eating muesli or going to the gym. What this means is that these people will judge each session of mindfulness, as if it could be successful or unsuccessful, as if it might give them value-added or not, as if it might contribute to their general state of wellness.

I agree with an American Buddhist nun, Gesshin Claire Greenwood, who said,


Zen doesn’t pacify me, or make me politically neutral, or stop me saying fuck. I hate Donald Trump. I am disgusted by Boris Johnson. But I know Donald Trump is a transitory phenomenon, however appalling. And I know Boris Johnson is suffering, and is not good at dealing with his suffering – except by making other people suffer. ‘The cruelty is the point.’

Zazen allows me to see the insane pressures I put on myself: to be productive in every waking moment, to improve who I am, to deserve more love, to defer death.

I am left alone with my own impatience – and quite frequently, it terrifies me. The desire to scratch, jump up and scream, crack a joke, rejoin life.

I’m sure I’ve said some of this wrong. I’m sure I’ll disagree with some of what I’ve said here, in a few years’ time.

If all this sounds pointless or silly to you, if it seems pretentious or a waste of time, then you clearly shouldn’t be a Buddhist. Or perhaps a proper Buddhist would say, infuriatingly, you’re not yet ready to be a Buddhist.

I’ve said that zazen isn’t about gain. But that doesn’t mean I feel I’ve gained nothing from it. On the contrary, without zazen I don’t think I’d have been capable of writing Patience. Not only does the first image of the book, the white wall Elliott is sitting, facing, looking at, originate from zazen, but the whole attitude of receptivity, of seeing what’s there and then seeing more – I wouldn’t have been capable of accepting something so simple a decade ago. I wouldn’t have trusted it to hold the reader’s attention. I’d have wanted to show off a lot more – to do my little dance, seeking approval. That’s not to say Elliott is an accidental Buddhist. No, he’s full of desires – for sensual experience, for freedom, for friendship. But he does know about suffering, and facing suffering through sitting. He has no choice.

I said that I’d go back to my mother’s deathbed – not that I really want to, of course; these were the worst days of my life. But they contained one of the few times where I felt I did the right thing. Here’s why –

My mother was perhaps ten days from death. I know this because her bed was still alongside the wall, rather than moved to the middle of the room, as it was later. She was on a normal mattress, not that inflatable thing that was soon to make an endless wheeze. She had stopped eating but had yet to stop drinking. She was small, getting smaller, and she was exhausted. Cancer of the womb was pulling her into herself, like a black hole. I went to visit, just me. It was afternoon; grey light. There was snow on the ground outside but if she lived for a couple more weeks, it would be spring, and daffodils. When I arrived I could tell she was too tired to talk, so I didn’t talk. She knew I was there, but I didn’t hold her hand. I had the chair near to the top end of the bed, where her bald head was, and I closed my eyes and just sat. I was a bit worried someone would come in, one of the nurses, but after a while I forgot that, and was able to just sit. I think my mother dozed, knowing her son there. I was there and she was there and I didn’t ask if there was anything I could do for her or burden her with telling her I loved her, again. I think – from what I’ve seen – that, that declaration, is very exhausting for someone edging into death. They have to return in order to reciprocate. So I just sat. And when I got up to go, the light now dark grey, not intending to wake her – though thinking it might be the last time I’d see her – she said, weakly but clearly, ‘You’re very understanding.’

In this case, doing nothing was better than all the somethings I could have done. Or so I felt.

I feel it’s also true at other times.





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