Doing Nothing: Q & A with Steven Harrison

Interview conducted by Ivan Frimmel for Odyssey

June-July 2004

Steven Harrison is an international speaker on the topics of consciousness, human development, relationships, and alternative education. He recently answered some questions for Odyssey arising from the publication of his book Doing Nothing: Coming to the End of the Spiritual Search. In the book, he urges us to look objectively at ourselves, to try to ‘unlearn’ learned, mechanical behaviour, which, he says, holds us back from our true spiritual potential – to ‘polish’, in other words, the mirror that reflects the true self.

Isn’t the concept of ‘doing nothing’ misleading if it implies doing something other than what you are doing now? Isn’t trying to do nothing useless?

All concepts are misleading in that they are symbols, have no inherent ‘thingness’, but appear to have substance outside of the thought itself. The way I am using ‘doing nothing’ is to describe the uselessness of the conceptual ‘me’ attempting to change itself. The ‘me’ is a thought and is inherently insubstantial outside of the thought itself. It has no means to see itself, change itself, get better or worse. Trying to do nothing, trying to change, all of this trying business is thinking. Thought doesn’t have anything else to do but to think. Just because something is pointless doesn’t mean we won’t occupy our lives thinking it or ‘doing it’. ‘Doing nothing’ is the attempt to talk about all of this.

Why do all these enlightened beings, supposedly beyond any sense of personal doership, still find it necessary to talk about themselves as separate entities. Would a truly nondual consciousness speak or write and what would it have to say and to whom?

Enlightenment is a myth. Non-duality is a story. Aren’t these so-called enlightened beings defined as such by those of us who chose to define ourselves as unenlightened? Isn’t this is a social construction and a mutual delusion? Language seems to be based on a subject-object relationship, a technological strategy that allows the concrete world to be manipulated. This is useful for biological survival. Thought—and language—has expanded this subject-object relationship into a psychological world where a created ‘me’ strives to avoid the actuality of its non-existence. This psychological reality is the basis of great conflict, but the conflict is a concept, just as the (idea of) ‘me’ is.

So is thinking the culprit, preventing us from seeing clearly, without the divides created by dualistic concepts, like ‘me’ versus ‘other’?

Thinking is not the culprit. Thinking is a wonderful tool that has allowed the human being to create and benefit from great technological advances. (But) one of the thoughts that has occurred (to us) is that there is a thinker. This thinker is terrified because it cannot find itself anywhere no matter how hard it thinks. To alleviate this fear, the thought of a thinker has created great spiritual journeys on which to go to find itself. One of these journeys, and one of the most sophisticated of the conceptual mazes we wander in, is the discovery of non-duality (that is, that we are not truly separate from the universe, or one another or our creator). (But) this discovery (also) does not exist outside of the idea of it, because the thinker, the discoverer, does not exist outside of the idea of itself.

Have the words ‘consciousness’, or ‘awareness’ or ‘emptiness’ become synonymous with a more sophisticated sense of a personal me?

Indeed. We are not just paltry, confused thinkers any more. We are not even desperate spiritual seekers trying to cultivate awareness or experience emptiness. Now we have traded it all for consciousness. We are that! We can relax. We still have an identity and a big one, at that. We’ve filled the emptiness once more.

Aren’t we after an impersonal ‘I’ which is not ‘I’ at all, which is ‘all that is’, as it is, including all thoughts, feelings and actions, excluding nothing, controlling nothing, changing nothing?

We already have all that is, as it is. Part of that ‘as it is’ is that are constantly struggling with our thoughts, feelings and actions and we love to exclude those things we don’t like, control anything we can overpower and change whatever we can manipulate. The ‘as it is’ is painful. We want a better ‘as it is’, the kind described in the spiritual literature. In the mythology of spirituality, ‘as it is’ is a code word for the bliss of non-attachment. This spiritual fantasy would be more accurately described as ‘as it isn’t’. But, I don’t think there is any school of spirituality that is about achieving life ‘as it isn’t’. That probably wouldn’t market well.

You seem to be talking from your own non-dual experience at times, without calling it as such, but you talk about contrasts – for example, consciousness (as) silence, emptiness as limitless, and thought as restricted – which seem to be dualistic.

I don’t know anything about non-duality. I wouldn’t call myself anything in particular, or for that matter as a non-anything. We really don’t know much other than that we have suddenly become aware and we are investigating this strange and wonderful world we have landed in. I have no idea where we are, what we are or even if we are. All the available spiritual maps appear to be outdated. Belief systems require our blindness and we are aware of that, so we can’t believe. Thought is symbolic of, but not the thing itself. Teachers offer us the security of surety for the small price of our integrity. All we are left with is to explore. This is not an exploration of doing, but of being.