“Sages call ‘sannyasa’ the renunciation of all actions done with desire. The wise declare that ‘tyaga’ is the renunciation of the fruits of activities.”
~ The Bhagavad Gita
We’ve all heard the old saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. This can most clearly be seen in the various idealistic crusades which humans have embarked upon over the ages (both personally and collectively), only to have them result in even greater and more complex troubles then those that they were intended to fix.
A fitting metaphor of what has been called “idiot compassion” is exemplified in the tale of the monkey who had the grand notion one day that he should “be of help”. Consequently, as he set about on his mission through the forest, he came upon a fish swimming in a pond. Pitying the creature, he lifted it out of the water and placed it in a nook between the branches of a nearby tree, in order to save it from drowning.
Even with the sophisticated technical diagnostic tools now at our disposal, we are still incapable of predicting the twists and turns that may result from our actions. The Buddha himself once noted that the effort to try and figure out the varied permutations of cause and effect could drive one insane. What’s clear is that this human life is characterized by a kind of paradox: we are here, we are alive in this world, and so we must act. However, our actions invariably result in entangling complications which create more and more strands in a karmic web that in turn binds us.
Moreover, this web-building has an exponential quality that can stymie even the best minds and hearts, since even the most altruistic preference leads to craving, which leads to suffering. Essentially, we are always acting from an ignorance based on attachment and identification, deriving conditional solutions which stem from provisional values and conditioned assumptions that have a habit of turning around and biting us.
This being the case, how can we make our way in the world without becoming trapped in a sticky web of our own action/reactions, of our own selective points of view that are drenched in accepting and rejecting, biased opinion, and limited vision? Upon inspection, it becomes evident that the only way to remain unbound by one’s actions is to perform them with real detachment, without fixating on the anticipated results, or fruits, of our activity, and especially without making it “personal”.
Developing non-attachment in all of our activities and duties does not mean non-action — standing aloof while the suffering world passes us by. Non-action itself has consequences. Nor does it imply renouncing our work and relations; on the contrary, it simply means acting without leaving a trace. This is the essence of “non-dwelling”. It is refraining from identification with a separate and independent self-idea, a do-er. There is only action acting, doing doing. The “I” is something extra we tend to add, a mental fabrication which typically only complicates experience.
Non-dwelling is the practice of leaving behind no trace of lingering thoughts, goals, desires, attraction or aversion. It is characterized by the relinquishment of any selfish motivation whatsoever in our activities. It transcends all grasping positions spawned by the belief in the “me and mine” story. It consists of simply acting directly with spontaneity and focus, unburdened by conceit, fantasy, hope, or fear, and without clinging to some personal stake in outcomes. As Shunryu Suzuki notes (in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind):
“In order to leave no traces, when you do something, you should just do it with your whole body and mind: you should be concentrated on what you do, You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do. You will have something remaining which is not completely burned out.”
In other words, to be truly liberated from attachments and act fluidly, we must be willing and able to let go of everything – all of our most cherished positions, concepts, and self-ideas, and plunge fearlessly into the Unknown, where true freedom alone abides. By practicing non-dwelling, we can begin to detach and mindfully observe, rather than habitually and impulsively reacting to events and circumstances. By taking the witness position, we can start to see how we have been conditioned to act and react based on various temporary and compounded images that we have taken ourselves and the world to be, and which upon investigation are revealed to be untrue – totally fictional narratives.
Rather than trying to change the world, the practice of non-dwelling, non-attachment, and non-identification allows us to humbly be changed by our experience of it, to the point where we can joyfully recognize our proper function in the midst of life and relations. Rather than rendering us dry, contracted, and withdrawn, it removes all that chronically anchors us — all that constricts our ability to respond with both wisdom and compassion to whatever circumstances arise. No longer weighed down by past regrets or future expectations, we can be intensely present and available to “what is”, right here and now, and act accordingly, in harmony with the universal Tao.