What does it mean to just be?

What does it mean, 'to just be?' Jonathan Rowson explores this topic with support from thinkers from the past.

Photo © Colourbox.com

One of Nietzsche’s most resonant remarks was that ‘man has no ears for that to which experience has given him no access.’ Sometimes you just can’t process an idea, because you don’t have the mental tools or reference points to make sense of it.

Sometimes a whole ‘way of being’ passes you by, because you are simply not aware that such an experiential state is possible. The classic illustration is HG Wells’s short story, “The Country of the Blind,” in which a man with vision fails to convey to the blind that there is a fifth sense, and that he can see. Instead, he is thought to be ‘unstable’ because of his ‘obsession’ with sight.

Such considerations are pertinent with regard to mindfulness, because one of the main ideas that motivates the practice of mindfulness is the idea of  ‘doing’ less, and ‘being’ more. “Don’t just do something, sit there!” is one vernacular way to capture the injunction to be mindful.

But what does it mean to just ‘be’? If you have no experience of meditation, the idea of just ‘being’ sounds passive, pointless and indulgent. But if you have tasted the experience of freedom that comes from feeling that you don’t have to ‘do’ anything, you know that it is often wonderfully cleansing, and even productive. Moreover, from the perspective of ‘being,’ so much of what passes for productive activity looks frenzied, hubristic and futile.

The point is not that we should all stop and do nothing, but that we need to recognise how much more creative, considerate and judicious our actions could be if they were grounded in a daily experience of just being. Indeed, although mindfulness in the west is a largely secular practice, the notion that being should underpin and inform doing has a distinguished spiritual pedigree. A secular translation of Christ’s statement that: ‘The kingdom of heaven lies within you’ might be: ‘go and meditate.’ Perhaps the core message of the Hindu holy text, The Bhagvad Gita, is ‘grounded in being, perform action.’ That is sound, if abstract advice. A sweeter version of the same idea is expressed by Lao Tzu: “Search your heart and see. The way to do is to be.”

From the western canon, Pascal famously said that all of our miseries stem from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone, and Kafka penned the fabulous suggestion: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

The point is that as individuals and collectively we are missing out because we tend to do too much and be too little. What Kafka doesn’t say is that it takes a certain amount of training to be able to be ‘quiet, still and solitary’. There is some gentle irony in the fact that those who most value ‘getting stuff done’ are often not so much unwilling, but rather unable to sit still. The one thing they can’t do, is to just be.

Most people in developed countries are overactive, distracted and restless. Even the people who are really trying to change the world for the better are sometimes in danger of letting their alacrity get in the way. In the Mindful Manifesto, by Dr. Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell (p4), this point is captured as follows:

“A few people want to do something so much that they go into politics. They devise and carry out programmes designed to solve our problems from above—improving the lot of communities, countries or even the planet… The plans may differ in content, but the underlying message is usually the same: if we want to make the world a happier place, we need to do something—right now!

But what if all this doing is actually part of the problem? What if, rather than needing to take more action, we actually need to take less? What if our compulsive habit of striving so hard to make things better is actually part of the reason we are so anxious? What if we don’t need technology to speed up, but ourselves to slow down?”

Alas, such ideas do not feel permissable for our relatively mindless media. The message that doing might be part of the problem feels like a modern kind of heresy, and I feel almost guilty as I write these words. What Brits do when the conversation gets too close to the bone like this is to lighten the load with some humour, so here are three famous sayings about the relationship between doing and being. More seriously, I suspect the last one is quite close to the truth.

‘To be is to do’ —Socrates

‘To do is to be’—Jean Paul Sartre

Do-be-do-be-do-be-do. —Frank Sinatra


This article was originally posted by Dr. Jonathan Rowson, Associate Director of the Social Brain Project at the RSA in London, on the RSA Projects blog. The RSA is a multidisciplinary organisation that is politically independent and combines cutting edge research and policy development with practical action.