This is perhaps one of the most often talked about, least understood and most controversial teachings, not only in A Course in Miracles, but also anywhere where contemplative or mystical thought interfaces with the secular world. Human society, particularly in the West, is highly action oriented and is becoming more so all the time. There is neither appreciation for nor understanding of the principle of Not-Doing. It is important for a true spiritual devotee to deeply understand this teaching, which is fundamental to spiritual life, so much so that Jesus says,
"Save time for me by only this one preparation, and practice doing nothing else. 'I need do nothing' is a statement of allegiance, a truly undivided loyalty." [T363/389]
"Nothing else"! "Undivided loyalty"! These are strong words. What could they possibly mean? Does it mean to be totally passive? To withdraw completely from participation in worldly affairs? This has been, perhaps, the most common interpretation of this concept by critics and adherents alike whether in Hinduism, Buddhism or among students of A Course in Miracles. And yet the Course is not talking about any sort of quietism or physical withdrawal from the world.
Perhaps to understand this teaching we must first understand one of the most important fundamental principles of A Course in Miracles -- that salvation is already an accomplished fact. It already exists in our mind. Lesson 337 summarizes this beautifully,
"My sinlessness ensures me perfect peace, eternal safety, everlasting love, freedom forever from all thought of loss; complete deliverance from suffering. And only happiness can be my state, for only happiness is given me. What must I do to know all this is mine? I must accept Atonement for myself, and nothing more. God has already done all things that need be done. And I must learn I need do nothing of myself, for I need but accept my Self, my sinlessness, created for me, now already mine, to feel God's Love protecting me from harm, to understand my Father loves His Son; to know I am the Son my Father loves." [W461/471]
God has already done all things that need be done." Salvation, Atonement, forgiveness, true perception, correction is not something which must be achieved, accomplished or acquired. It is not something we grow into or evolve toward. We are not on a "path" or a "journey." Salvation is now, awaiting only our acceptance of it.
"The working out of all correction takes no time at all. Yet the acceptance of the working out can seem to take forever." [T520/559]
We may need go no further. If salvation is already accomplished in the mind then there is obviously nothing left to DO. "I Need Do Nothing" is merely a fact. All of our self-initiated doing then, no matter how "spiritual" (in earthly terms), is but interference to what has already been done. Since salvation is undoing and real learning is unlearning, then we have nothing more to accomplish or achieve. And, it is so simple; there is not all that much to UNdo. Ramana Maharshi once remarked that the only belief that needed to be undone was the belief that we are not already enlightened.
As if this weren't enough, the Course says one of its more radical teachings,
"You were created only to create, neither to see nor do." [T252/271]
clearly implying that both perception and doing are only of the ego state.
Let us go a little more deeply into what the Course is saying in "I Need Do Nothing." Perhaps by very carefully examining this statement one word at a time we may unearth more of its real meaning.
Who is this I? A Course in Miracles asks,
"The whole value of right perception lies in the inevitable realization that all perception is unnecessary. This removes the block entirely. You may ask how this is possible as long as you appear to be living in this world. That is a reasonable question. You must be careful, however, that you really understand it. Who is the 'you' who are living in this world?" [T54/59]
Have you understood? Have you really asked this question? For most the pronouns "I" and "me" are used to mean the human body/personality/mind combination, the accumulated history and conditioning that makes "me" seem real. The Course is quick to point out, however,
"Of yourself you can do nothing, because of yourself you are nothing. I am nothing without the Father and you are nothing without me [Jesus]...." [T135/145]
Here, perhaps we have already uncovered the mystery. As long as one thinks he is a separate body/personality/mind and God or Spirit is but some sort of theological concept outside him and irrelevant to his "real" everyday life, he is a nothingness, an unreality. So, any time "I" means "I, myself" there is a misidentification. And since this "I" of itself is nothing, it can do nothing, at least nothing real. It can, however, project images and experience them as real. It can refuse to see.
"To say, 'Of myself I can do nothing' is to gain all power.... As God created you, you have all power. The image you made of yourself has none." [M67/70f]
This is not new news. During his earthly ministry Jesus often told us,
"Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works."(2)
and this was repeated by Paul in his letter to the Galatians,
"I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God...."(3)
Here we have clear and classic examples of the denial of self. It is "Not-I" that actually does anything real at all. When "I" am no longer the doer, all is already done.
Here is one of the profound meanings of "I Need Do Nothing" -- to relinquish the personal sense of doership, the feeling that "I, of myself" am doing anything. Since nothing can be done by "me," except to make further illusions, then to do nothing "of myself" or "by myself" means that whatever needs to be done is done through "me" but not by "me." Real action is never self-initiated or self-motivated; it is always impersonal, or perhaps better, superpersonal, with no investment in the formal outcome and no personal feeling of achievement or accomplishment.
What is need? Need arises from desire and discontent. Desire begins with the belief that the present is insufficient, unacceptable, that there must be something "more." It is the perception of lack, the belief that something is missing, unfulfilled, incomplete. Desire is a craving for "something else." Need is the objectification of desire, making it specific; the desire for certain things or situations. There is, in every moment of desire, both the demand for what is not and the fear that it will not come. However, if the object of desire does come, there is the refusal to unconditionally accept it, leading thereby to further desire and discontent. Desire then is the unending process of unfulfillment itself; this is the beginning, the "original sin." What is not realized is that all fulfillment comes from recognizing our true Reality, which is One with God. If desire is objectified as specific "needs," it keeps one tied to this material world, the wheel of karma, so to speak. Left without hope of fulfillment in the world it can lead us back to God.
"Learn now, without despair, there is no hope of answer in the world." [T608/654]
One other essential ingredient in the translation of desire and discontent in general to specific "need" is the process of discrimination and preference. We could not specify need if we did not see differences and set up a hierarchy of preferences. This gives rise to two types of need, the need for, which we shall call attachment, and the need to avoid, which we shall call aversion. In looking at desire one must look not only at attachments, but also at aversions. Both are equally damaging to equanimity and love.
In whom does desire and therefore need arise? Is it not the separated, mortal idea of self, the "I-me-mine"? And, is the ego-self anything other than the whole idea of unfulfillment? Is not the ego the entire idea that God, infinity, perfection is insufficient, that I must have more, do it by myself? What the idea of ego has done is to attempt to find something more than God, to add something to infinity; not realizing that to add the finite to infinity would reduce infinity. It is what the ego has attempted to add that has seemed to reduce infinity to finiteness, make perfection seem imperfect. This is a very important point -- God AND is less than God ONLY. Simone Weil speaks of this, albeit from the belief that the world is actually God's creation,
"On God's part creation [this world] is not an act of self-expansion but of restraint and renunciation. God and all his [worldly] creatures are less than God alone. God accepted this dimunition. He emptied part of his being from himself. .... God permitted the existence of things distinct from himself and worth infinitely less than himself. By this creative act God denied himself for our sakes in order to give us the possibility of denying ourselves for him. This response, this echo, which it is in our power to refuse, is the only possible justification for the folly of love of the creative act."(4)
The bottom line is this: what we have attempted to ADD to God has diminished our experience of Him. This is why the whole process of salvation is a process of subtraction, of UN-doing, and the only thing which must be undone is the belief in need. To believe that one needs anything at all is to deny the sufficiency of God.
Some think it is useful to make a distinction between physical needs and psychological cravings or addictions. I am not certain this is so. You may ask, "But what of my needs while I am in this world?" This begs the question mentioned earlier, "Who is the 'you' who are living in this world?" [T54/59] To affirm that there are needs, affirms that you experience this as real, and that makes it real for you. Yes, attending to (which means focussing one's attention on) "worldly" needs is but another way which we reinforce the idea that this world and therefore the ego-self is real. And, assuming for a moment that these temporal "needs" must somehow be met, do we know the difference between an actual survival need and a psychological craving? Given the profound paradox that we live, Jesus answered the apostles almost 2000 years ago when they asked about food, clothing and shelter,
"And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you."(5)
A Course in Miracles echoes this very same principle,
"Once you accept His plan as the one function that you would fulfill, there will be nothing else the Holy Spirit will not arrange for you without your effort. He will go before you making straight your path, and leaving in your way no stones to trip on, and no obstacles to bar your way. Nothing you need will be denied you. Not one seeming difficulty but will melt away before you reach it. You need take thought for nothing, careless of everything except the only purpose that you would fulfill." [T404/433f]
"Without your effort"! "Take thought for nothing"! "Careless of everything...."! Here again, the principle is clear -- "I Need Do Nothing." If one is seeking the Kingdom of God wholeheartedly (and there is no other way), he need (and in a real sense must) take no thought for his own needs; they will be provided. Are we willing to be fed and provided for without the sense of needing to do something about it? If one feels, however, that he himself must be concerned about and provide for his perceived needs through his own effort or ingenuity, he is not trusting in God's promise and is, therefore, not seeking the Kingdom of God truly. He has not yet attained Trust, the first characteristic of a Teacher of God on which all the rest are based.(6)
Ultimately one must come to this realization about our collective and individual perception of lack,
"...there is but one lack since there is but one need." [T205/220]
"Atonement is the one need in this world that is universal." [T89/97]
Mother Teresa was once asked to compare the poverty in India with the poverty in America. Her response was not to worry about the poverty elsewhere, that America's poverty was great and of the worst kind -- spiritual poverty. If this is truly realized, then one can let go of all perceived specific needs and allow desire and discontent to lead him back to God.
"...if you perceive but one need in yourself you will be healed." [T201/216]
Here is perhaps the crux of this teaching. In our Western/Protestant work ethic culture, one's entire existence is justified based on work and accomplishment. "Idle hands are the devil's workshop" and the like. We have become human DOings rather than human BEings. We have forgotten how to be.
It may be helpful if we make a distinction between action and activity or "doing." Krishna, speaking to Arjuna in The Bhagavad-Gita, says this,
"Indeed, there is no one who rests even an instant; every creature is driven to action [activity] by his own nature. .... Even to maintain your body, Arjuna, you are obliged to act. Selfish action [activity] imprisons the world. Act selflessly, without any thought of personal profit. .... Every selfless act [action], Arjuna, is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead."(7)
Then action is impersonal (or superpersonal) and effortless, activity is personally, self-consciously motivated and directed. A new friend made the comparison to the playing of the piano. After one has acquired sufficient skill and has practiced a particular piece for a while there comes a point at which there is no longer "someone playing music," but rather the music takes over and there is only "music." The player has, in a sense, disappeared into the music. What happens is that the music so absorbs the self-awareness of the player and he no longer perceives himself as anything separate from the music. Another example is the case of many so-called heroic acts wherein the hero has little or no accurate remembrance of the act. Selfless action is often contrary to the supposed needs of the self-conscious ego and the ego is literally blotted out by the call for superhuman acts of "heroism."
"Liberation is achieved by the practice of non-activity, say the Masters of the Secret Teachings.
"What is, according to them, non-activity? -- Let us first of all notice that it has nothing in common with the quietism of certain Christian or oriental mystics. Ought one to believe that it consists in inertia and that the disciples of the Masters who honour it are exhorted to abstain from doing anything whatever? -- Certainly not.
"In the first place, it is impossible for a living being to do nothing. To exist is, in itself, a kind of activity. The doctrine of non-action does not in any way aim at those actions which are habitual in life: eating, sleeping, walking, speaking, reading, studying, etc. In contradistinction to the Taoist mystics who, in general, consider that the practice of non-activity requires complete isolation in a hermitage, the Masters of the Secret Teachings, although prone to appreciate 'the joys of solitude,' do not consider them in any way indispensable. As for the practice of non-activity itself, they judge it absolutely necessary for the production of the state of deliverance (tharpa)."(8)
What we must see is that most, if not all, of our self-directed, self-motivated activity is but an avoidance, something unconsciously designed to keep us so preoccupied that there is not sufficient psychological space for observation and truth to arise. More and more, people seem to try to fill every possible moment of their lives with some sort of activity. Rest, quiet is approached as something to be avoided until one is completely exhausted, once again allowing no space for contemplation and truth. It is even criticized and condemned as lazy or unproductive.
"By becoming involved with tangential issues, it hopes to hide the real question and keep it out of mind. The ego's characteristic busy-ness with nonessentials is for precisely that purpose." [T60/66]
Having observed the operation of this tendency within himself, Thomas Merton prayed thusly,
"Set me free from the laziness that goes about disguised as activity when activity is not required of me, and from the cowardice that does what is not demanded, in order to escape sacrifice."(9)
What we must see is that all of our self-directed, self-motivated "doings," even if they are of the highest human virtue and good are but more interferences to the Truth. There is no virtue or good but God. All attempts by man to be virtuous or good by his own effort are vain and false and merely result in reinforcing the belief in separation, leading to more pain and suffering.
The Course gives us a clear directive in how to begin to discern activity from action,
"This is the question that you must learn to ask in connection with everything. What is the purpose? Whatever it is, it will direct your efforts automatically." [T61/67]
To answer this question requires great self-honesty. And, if we honestly look at it, we see that the motivation for virtually all of our "doings," our self-directed activity, is the belief in the reality and needs of a special, separated, vulnerable self living in a world of separated bodies and things. Rarely is there a truly selfless thought. Therefore, to do anything of and by oneself is clearly not moving toward the Truth no matter how wonderful it is judged in the human sense. For most, even so-called spiritual pursuits or service to humanity are more attempts to make the ego real, to become a spiritual somebody. Doing is the opposite of Being; it only begets more doing. There is nothing we need do and from the false ego-center there is nothing real we can do.
"To do anything involves the body. And if you recognize you need do nothing, you have withdrawn the body's value from your mind. Here is the quick and open door through which you slip past centuries of effort, and escape from time. This is the way in which sin loses all attraction right now. For here is time denied, and past and future gone. Who needs do nothing has no need for time. To do nothing is to rest, and make a place within you where the activity of the body ceases to demand attention. Into this place the Holy Spirit comes, and there abides. He will remain when you forget, and the body's activities return to occupy your conscious mind." [T363/390]
No-Thing. God is no thing. Spirit is no thing. The more one no-things himself, the closer to Spirit he moves. Mr. Krishnamurti has pointed out this very fact,
"When there is the discovery, the experiencing of that nothingness as you, the fear -- which exists only when the thinker is separate from his thoughts and so tries to establish a relationship with them -- completely drops away. Only then is it possible for the mind to be still; and in this tranquility, truth comes into being."(10)
Things are separate. Things imply form, image, time and space. Things are the material of separation. Even mental activity engages the process of imagination and time; this is possibly our most pernicious form of doing. Sitting quietly, "meditating," while the mind is still engaged in its ceaseless activity of projection is what Chuang Tzu called "sitting while wandering." This is certainly not what is meant by "I Need Do Nothing" and yet is a prevalent deception.
Things put emphasis on form, not content. A Course in Miracles points out our confusion of content and form in many ways,
"You are too bound to form, and not to content." [T274/294]
"Take not the form for content, for the form is but a means for content." [T485/521]
"The ego is incapable of understanding content, and is totally unconcerned with it." [T274/294f]
"No law of chaos could compel belief but for the emphasis on form and disregard of content." [T458/493]
"Idols are quite specific. But your will is universal, being limitless. And so it has no form, nor is content for its expression in the terms of form. Idols are limits." [T586/630]
All things, all forms are but idols we have placed before the face of God. Any sort of activity or doing requires form. Therefore, any concern with things or form at all the Course calls vanity.(11) It is but more activity of the self-conscious ego attempting to validate its own reality.
As an actor I learned to read important lines by emphasizing each word one at a time until I found the emphasis which gave the most accurate interpretation. In this case we can see that it matters not where the emphasis is placed. Whether one says, "I need do nothing", "I NEED do nothing", "I need DO nothing" or "I need do NOTHING" the meaning is the same. Lesson 94 is rather specific about what is needed,
"Nothing is required of you to reach this goal except to lay all idols and self-images aside...." [W162/164]
This is but an echo of the Text. In the section entitled "The Little Willingness", at the end of the prayer, it begins,
"I need add nothing to His plan. But to receive it, I must be willing not to substitute my own in place of it.
"And that is all. Add more, and you will merely take away the little that is asked. .... It is this that makes the holy instant so easy and so natural. You make it difficult, because you insist there must be more that you need do. You find it difficult to accept the idea that you need give so little, to receive so much. And it is very hard for you to realize it is not personally insulting that your contribution and the Holy Spirit's are so extremely disproportionate." [T356/381f]
Until one relinquishes all sense of personal doership -- "I of myself do nothing" -- as well as all interest in the form of the outcome and all desire for reward or accomplishment; until then all activity, physical or mental, is an interference, a movement away from Truth. In the Tao Te Ching it is said,
"A truly good man does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone. A foolish man is always doing, yet much remains to be done."
"The Tao of the sage is work without effort."
"Less and less is done until non-action is achieved. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone."(12)
One finally comes to realize that
"...to believe in truth you do not have to do anything." [T200/215]
As Marianne Williamson once remarked, "A Course in Miracles is a path of radical relaxation." This is particularly profound when one realizes that the opposite of relaxation is contraction. Careful observation reveals that all self-centered activity is contraction -- a grabbing, a holding-on, a concentration around a tiny, finite idea of limitation and lack. This is the essence of all doing, physical as well as mental -- contraction. It is the reaction of fear. When doing or contraction ceases, we let go and let God. This oft used phrase doesn't only mean "let God do it," but also, more profoundly, "let or allow God....to be."
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1. sub-chapter heading T362/388
2. John 14:10 (KJV)
3. 2:20 (KJV)
4. Waiting for God, p. 145, [comments] added to help clarify the somewhat different beliefs about creation with ACIM. The thought as a whole is very relevant.
5. Luke 12:29-31 (KJV)
6. see M8ff/9ff
7. trans., Eknath Easwaran (1985) [comments mine]
8. The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects, Alexandra David-Neel and Lama Yongden, p. 91f, (1967)
9. New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 45
10. Commentaries on Living, first series
11. see T526/567
12. Lao Tzu (translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English) chapters 38, 81, and 48