• Dave Burns

Nothing Left Undone

Photo: Jordan Opel

There is a struggle that’s fairly central to the life of human beings:

We want to rest, and we want to create.

The closest thing to satisfying both of these desires that most people experience is alternating between them— creating from 9-5, and resting in the evenings.

Some people go a step further and incorporate deliberate periods of rest into their work schedule to facilitate flow state, such that rest and creation support each other more directly.

But while I am an ardent supporter of spending time physically resting every day (and deliberately harnessing flow state), relying on this kind of model to satisfy the creative impulse and the resting impulse is a flawed approach. By consisting of alternating satisfaction of desire, it consists simultaneously of an alternating dissatisfaction of desire. The desire to rest is often active during “work” hours, and the desire to create often nags at us during times of leisure.

To the extent that the satisfaction of desire is connected to human happiness, our capacity for consistent happiness is reliant on our ability to satisfy both of these apparently competing desires simultaneously.

So how the fuck do we do that?

There are 4 key methods. They may sound simply like pretty ideas—but try them. Test them. See which work for you. They have the capacity to open up incredible serenity in the midst of an active life—something that we all long for and nearly no one experiences.

1. Witnessing

“When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” -Tao Te Ching

There is something to be done, but you don’t want to do it. A part of you knows you’d be happier in a certain way if you did do it, but another (big) part of you would much rather do absolutely nothing.

So, do absolutely nothing. Refuse to do anything at all. Don’t let yourself expend an ounce of energy towards any task, no matter how small.

And instead, simply watch the action happen.

A sense of doing, and particularly a sense of effortful doing, is inextricably bound up with one's sense of agency. It doesn’t feel like you’re doing something when you watch a tree’s leaves dance in the wind, or watch your partner take out the trash.

So if you are not the one performing an action, and that action is instead is simply happening—if you allow yourself to witness your own body (or mind) moving in the same way that you witness the leaves of a tree, then the desire to rest is in no way violated by the action.

2. Unification

“We are all stardust." -Carl Sagan

We generally perceive a distinction between the movement of the world and the movement of the self.

This distinction gives birth to the spiritual-sounding distinction between “surrender” and “self-will” (or “going-with-the-flow” and “decisive action”).

Now there is a kind of deep relief in surrender. Letting go, releasing effort, relinquishing personal plans and egoic striving—there is a soul-nourishing rest that accompanies this kind of practice.

But then again, inaction—or lazy action—also follows from it quite naturally.

So if we wish to experience both the nourishing rest of deep surrender as well as the creative power of decisive action, we may simply experience decisive action as an act of deep surrender.

Thankfully, this perception is a true one. The will moving through us that we call the will of “self” is the exact same force that moves the rest of the world. It doesn’t take a Sufi mystic or an astrophysicist to notice that you are a part of the world around you, and that the same underlying forces govern you just as much as they govern the movement of the stars. True surrender isn’t a choice—it’s a recognition of what’s already true.

3. Presence

“Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface, In thee thy summer, ere thou be distilled…” -Sonnet VI, Shakespeare

The desire to rest that takes the form of resistance to action comes fundamentally from only one thing: the prediction that the near-future action will be less pleasant than the present inaction.

This means that the existence of the resistance is dependent on a prediction—a projection into the near-future.

This means that without any attention projected into the near-future, resistance is impossible.

So: the simplest way to annihilate resistance to action is to remove all attention from the future and bring it completely into the present moment.

4. Erotic discipline

“...you surely shouldn’t think that you will hunt so artlessly the prey that is worth the most…?”

-Socrates, Xenophon’s Memorabilia

There is a thing inside of us that wants something more. It is a kind of creature living within—a craving creature, a dissatisfied creature, but a powerful creature. It would happily take any action that it thinks will bring it closer to the “more” that it wants.

This creature is sort of us, but we are not merely it.

Now “discipline” comes from the Latin word disciplina, meaning “teaching, education, training.” So built into the word is the shape of two beings, a teacher and a student.

So, in the case of self-discipline, there is an etymological hint that it somehow consists of two beings within the self—some kind of “teacher” and a “student.”

Anyone who’s ever had an excellent teacher knows that the best teaching consists not of punishment and coercion, but rather of a kind of masterful activation of the student’s love for the relevant subject matter.

This means that there is a fundamental similarity between teaching and seduction—both arts deal with the activation of love in another human being—and so also a similarity between self-discipline and seduction.

So if there is a powerful, craving-filled creature within us that is not quite us, and we wish it to perform some specific, powerful, creative actions such that we ourselves don’t have to, then our task is simple:

Seduce it.

And then sit back and enjoy the ride.

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