Expanding Awareness

Non-doing or non-forcing?

By Michael Ashcroft | 7 min read
Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

I want to unpick a challenge that was presented to me: why do I say non-doing, which can confuse people, instead of something more clear like non-forcing?

Non-doing or non-forcing?

Indeed, Alan Watts himself preferred the term forcing in translating the ‘wei’ in ‘wu-wei’:

“Wu-wei is the principle of not forcing in anything that you do.” Alan Watts

I also like the term ‘non-forcing’ and agree that it gets closer to what in Alexander Technique is called inhibition, the skill that gives us access to effortless being and action.

But I still like ‘non-doing’. Why? Because I don’t want to let people off the hook so easily.

I am trying to point towards an experience that is subtle. Chances are that the first thing to occur to you when thinking about non-doing is not really it. There needs to be some reason, some invitation, to dig a little deeper.

If I were to suggest something like “life can be more effortless if you learn how to stop forcing”, that may immediately paint a picture of an exaggerated kind of tension. We all know people who are highly strung and ‘tight’ in everything they do, which makes it so easy to say “ah yes, I am aware of those people, and I’m nothing like them, so what a relief it is to discover that I am already non-forcing. Back to Netflix, then.”

You see how easy it is to slip around true examination of the idea. Particularly in contexts like Twitter, where I have 280 characters per tweet to give someone sufficient pause to give the idea a chance, non-forcing doesn’t really cut it for me.

Let’s explore ‘non-doing’ then. For me, non-forcing and non-doing are synonymous, but non-doing gives people new to the idea a better sense of the paradox that needs to be resolved. It’s a term that raises objections:

“So non-doing just means doing nothing, then.”

No. Non-doing is neither doing nor doing nothing, which are in fact the same thing.

”Okay, but surely if I non-do then I won’t get anything done?”

Incorrect. In fact you’ll unlock capacity, creativity and enjoyment you didn’t think possible. And they’ll just happen by themselves.

”But…. what are you talking about? How?”

BOOM. That’s what I want. The term non-doing is like a Zen kōan, a seemingly nonsensical paradox designed to get your thinking mind to drop away to reveal a direct understanding of the world in a space bigger than and outside of thought.

I invite you to play with non-doing as we go on. Right now, it’s likely that you are ‘doing’ reading.

Check in with yourself as you read. Is your breathing shallow? Is there tension around your eyes and face? Are you leaning towards the screen?

I’m going to keep giving you some words that you can read while you play with this. I invite you to realise that, for example, if you speak English, you don’t need to try to understand these words.

See if you can notice that there is a part of your mind that desperately wants to involve itself in understanding, even though it happens automatically.

It’s the same with sounds. While still reading, I invite you to notice that there are sounds going on around you, and have been this whole time. Notice that same part of your mind that wants to make sense of, label, or even try to listen. No – again – listening can take care of itself.

For those of you who, like me, enjoy deep trance with Alan Watts voiceover, this track illustrates this listening point perfectly, and is just wonderful.

This is the kind of ‘doing’ that is meant in non-doing or non-forcing. To borrow some language from meditative traditions, we could consider the immediate understanding of “forcing” as “gross doing” and the ultimate understanding of forcing as “subtle doing”.

And now I want to really trigger you by suggesting that, where forcing and doing are synonymous, so is ‘caring’.

What about ‘non-caring’?

If I were to ask you not to care about something, what does that bring up for you?

I’m guessing there’s a negative connotation. I can imagine a school teacher writing to my parents to say “Michael simply doesn’t care enough.” In fact, my school had a hilarious evaluation system:

For each subject each term we would receive scores like B2, A1, A3, etc. It didn’t take long to figure out that A3 is obviously a much better grade than A1: “look, I’m getting the same good marks and not really trying!”. You would think it’s a good thing, but that’s not the vibe I used to get from an A3.

Instead, it came with a thin kind of revulsion, judgement or the impression that I was somehow lacking in virtue. The lesson was clear: it’s not enough merely to achieve, you must also appear as though you care about achieving.

The fact that this idea was deeply programmed into me – and, I suspect, also in you – was made abundantly clear to me in my Alexander Technique training. (I also believe it’s a big part of why Total Work is a thing).

My teacher (Peter Nobes) and I would play catch during lessons. Imagine for yourself how you would have responded in the following scenario:

That’s it. That’s the scenario. Can you already feel how your mind and body are reorganising at the prospect?

These are some of the things that I experienced:

That entire process can be called ‘caring’. And every time Peter saw me caring (and believe me, it’s very obvious), he would say “this is the least important thing you’ve ever done in your life”.

Of course that’s true. I was standing in a room with one other person, participating in a training exercise, with no possible negative consequences of not catching the ball. The point of the exercise was not to catch the ball, but to not care about catching the ball. That’s surprisingly hard when you first play with it.

And what I discovered was that, when I cared less – or was able not to care at all about whether I caught, dropped or totally ignored the ball – my ability to catch it improved 100x. I’m not even exaggerating there. My hand would magically send itself to exactly the right place.

Even when I threw the ball back, Peter would just hold out his hand, I would throw it (in an uncaring way), and it would just land in his hand, consistently. He didn’t have to move his hand to catch the ball, the throw was that accurate. There’s no way that I could have done that.

Caring, then, is perhaps a more accessible way into understanding what ‘forcing’ and ‘doing’ are about. The more I ‘cared’ about catching the ball, the more I forced it. When I didn’t care – yet still intended to catch the ball – I didn’t force it, and it happened by itself.

“Well, fine, it’s easy not to care about catching a ball, but what about all the important things in my life, Michael? I can’t not care about those, they need to get done!”

I have two answers for you.

First, right now, I’m not suggesting you completely let go of caring about all things. There’s a lot of conditioning to undo and skill to build. Instead, pick some small things: see if you can care less while reading, while cooking, while listening to music, or even while talking to someone.

This doesn’t mean ‘not intend to be engaged in that activity’, but to let go of the caring about getting it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. You won’t be a bad person if you care just a little less in the sense I mean.

Second, consider why some things are easier not to care about than others. It comes down to trust. It’s easier not to care about catching a ball after I’ve seen my body just do it a few times. It’s less easy to trust that same system when there’s an important report I need to write for the big client by the tough deadline my boss set.

Ultimately, I believe that all things can benefit from this non-doing / non-forcing / non-caring approach. But I can’t do it all the time (yet), some things still hook me and I can’t always let go of the need to interfere.

That’s okay though, we’re all a work in progress.

Disengaging your parking brake
A few years ago — during a road trip from Boston, MA, to Burlington, VT — I noticed the engine of my hire car was working quite hard and the steering was heavy. When I stopped at a farm to investigate, and to sample some maple syrup and cheese, I realised that
Learning to say no: experiments in inhibition
Consent lies at the heart of Alexander Technique. I mean two things by this. One person giving permission to participate in some activity. This kind of consent is vital not just when teaching Alexander Technique, but in all domains of life. The experience of giving consent to respond to stimuli.
Getting unstuck - physically and philosophically - with Alexander Technique
I want to open with a quote from Frank Pierce Jones regarding John Dewey, who was an early proponent of Alexander Technique: (John) Dewey considered that the Alexander Technique provided a demonstration of the unity of body and mind. With progress as a pupil, he reported an improvement in his