How to be free: non-action in action

From all sides, the cry is the same: something must be done. More must be done.

Don’t just sit there, do something. Action must be taken to avert disaster. Whether you are on the side of the environmentalists or the leftists or the big businesses or the governments, all are agreed: action is necessary. The disagreement comes when deciding exactly what sort of action is required.

Did it not occur that maybe it is the doing itself that is the problem? It is humanity’s restless need to intervene, change things, make things, build towers, invent plastic toys, charge around the planet in motor cars and aeroplanes, conquer, plunder, steal, convert, help out, drop bombs, make profits – it is the very doing of these things that causes all the disasters. Aid work is a case in point, as Paul Theroux points out: 40 years of intensive aid programmes in Africa and things have only grown worse.

And it is action and movement, in the form of oil, that is draining the planet. If only we could learn to sit still and contemplate then we would do no damage. We would consume nothing and we would not be consumed. Lying in a field gazing at the sky is a huge pleasure; it costs nothing and is supremely environmentally friendly. It hurts no-one. ‘Doing’ itself is a kind of vanity: we do things in the hope that other people will see us doing things and believe us to be good and useful human beings.

It is for those reasons that I propose a national Do Less campaign. Do Less means simply that: whatever you do, just do less of it. That means less work, less travel, less going out, less shopping, less scurrying around, less television watching. Instead of filling every Saturday with pointless shopping trips, just stay at home, do nothing and buy nothing.

Doing less, apart from helping to heal the planet, will also help to heal our souls. Doing less means more staring out of the window, more reading, more storytelling, more sitting around the fire, more interaction with nature, more conviviality. The beauty of Do Less is that it is so very easy, so very enjoyable and so very useful. When you do less, everybody gets a break. It is also a huge money-saver: start doing less and you will need less money. Need less money and you will need to do less unpleasant work.

The beauty of the Do Less campaign is that it is strictly anti-fanatical. Fanaticism of any form is wrong because it is an arrogance, whether it is Muslim fanaticism, free-market fanaticism, environmental fanaticism, atheistic fanaticism. Fanaticism is the idea that your ideas are best and therefore you should impose them on other people, by coercion, persuasion or even military force. The philosophy of doing less – or even better, doing nothing at all – is nothing new. In a sense, it is simply Taoism, the ancient Chinese wisdom that preached non-activity and the idea of wu wei, meaning literally ‘without action’. Do nothing, say the Taoists, and good will prevail. The Tao Te Ching, Taoism’s central text, is supposed to have been written in around 500BC by Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius. His idea is that things sort themselves out and we should leave each other alone:

The further one goes, the less one knows.

In fact, the idea of non-action is common to the mystical edges of all religions, whether we are talking about the pleasure-loving amoral mystics of Sufism, the crazy Catholic saints, the Zen Buddhists or even the Protestant mysticism expressed by the 18th-century English writer William Law. All these wise traditions say that the outward show of piety – in other words, ‘look at me, look at how holy I am’ – may simply be an arrogance. It is not in the doing, says the 12th-century German mystic Meister Eckhart, but in the being that liberation exists.

People should think less about what they ought to do, and more about what they ought to be. Do not imagine that you can ground your salvation upon your actions; it must rest on what you are.

Do Less is an even more Taoist version of Taoism, and an easy path to follow, because how much you do or do not do is entirely your own decision. There will be no Do Less police handing out fines for people who do too much, though you can buy the t-shirt from The Idler's website. If you can be bothered.

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of The Idler and author of How to be Free (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2008

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