To Be, Not To Do Strengthening Your Sense Of Self

To be, not to do: A moment of stillness as an act of self-care

The art of being is learning to let go of the external and embrace the internal. Discover how to cultivate the relationship with self.

The French philosopher René Descartes coined the famous saying, “I think, therefore I am” to provide a discourse on existence. Nowadays, we could say, “I think, I worry, I text, I post, I react, and, in fact, I never stop and therefore I am exhausted.” Life has sped up and the time for reflection has given way to the age of activity. Activewear, digital activity, interactive, overactive and it has come at a great cost to the human experience. Nowadays very little self-actuality occurs in our lives as it would mean we would have to press pause for even just a moment. So what if we just stopped doing to just be? After all, we are human beings.

Being is a doing word

It is highly likely that you’ve been asked as recently as yesterday the question, “What are you doing today?” Humans have been conditioned to always be in motion, doing something, being productive or active. When meeting someone for the first time, odds-on the most likely question you’ll ask or that will be posed to you is “What do you do?” referring to the job you have. Imagine if you answered by saying that you take deep breaths and contemplate life or that you take long aimless walks with no destination in mind or that you sit in lotus position most mornings? Your answer would most likely be received with a blank, even quizzical expression.

Humans have been conditioned to always be in motion, doing something, being productive or active.

Do you remember when, as a kid, people would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Of course, they were talking about a job or a profession. But what if the question was, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” As the question relates to the kind of person you want to be, you would answer that differently. When the question is posed with the interrogative pronoun “who”, whether a child or not, the neural pathways take a different route. Immediately, you move into the feeling or “being” space as opposed to the “doing” space. Thoughts of values, emotionality and sense of belonging and connection commandeer the cognitive process. You are more likely to think about being happy, being loved and perhaps being someone who makes a difference. It becomes more a reflective proposition as opposed to a reflexive one. Still relevant today, we must ask ourselves who we want to be. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if at the top of everyone’s to do list, the simple answer was: “To be me”?

We live in a results-driven world where the outcome is more important than the process. We focus on the how instead of the why. We concern ourselves with what needs to be done rather than what we need as individuals to feel sustained. This outwardly focused view means that we forfeit the introverted gaze where we contemplate our essential being.

Paulo Coelho in his seminal little book, The Alchemist, wrote of the metaphysical journey to self, through the actual physical journey to foreign parts and strange places, only to find that what was being sought was already at the starting point. The true self exists within us, and we spend so much time distracting ourselves with material gain, escape and pleasure that our sense of internal connection eludes us. In actual fact, what we seek to find has been within us all along. The author was a proponent of the ancient Eastern philosophical notion that the journey is far more important than the destination as discovery happens along the way. Life is an inward journey and its spoils are not material but spiritual.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It makes perfect sense that in order to act on our will, we must first know who we are. When we stop to think about what really drives us, what we really value, and what is of real meaning to us, only then can we get closer to our true self and our purpose in life.

Being in yourself

In recent times, self-help gurus and positive psychology have promulgated the very efficacious and helpful notion of being yourself where you seek to express and to be your true self. To become this, we endeavour to drop all those protective masks so that we can really be seen. Now this is not easy and, in fact, is quite confronting because we fear being ridiculed or our feelings not being reciprocated. Being seen is the stuff of courage.

To be yourself is incredibly gratifying and emancipating; it is something we do to show up as we truly are to others. But in order to be seen, we must see and be known to ourselves. It follows that if we take this precept of being yourself one step further then it makes sense that self-actualisation occurs when you can be in yourself. If being yourself is how we act or present to the world (in a genuine and truthful way) then being in yourself is how you present to yourself. It is the relationship with self. This requires introspection and is a very conscious and deliberate act.

The father of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung, was a leading thinker and proponent of searching and binding all parts of the self (conscious and unconscious) to achieve what is deemed as integration. He spoke of the “shadow self”, which is that part of us we find difficult to countenance or don’t want to admit to existing within ourselves: our fears, destructive emotional drives or reactive impulses. Facing up to the darker underbelly of our personality allows us to better understand and live with ourselves — but this requires quiet and probing investigation to be in ourselves.

Doing nothing is being something

That wise old Greek, Socrates, made the most profound of insights using the simplest of language. He said, “To be is to do.” And “to be” is not as simple as it sounds; there is discomfort in just being. So what does it mean to just be?

Not being active doesn’t consequently mean that you’re being passive. It is not a binary or oppositional proposition. In fact, being still is a very active state of mind. It is a process of reflection which paves the pathway to self-discovery. Now this can be done in any number of ways: through meditation, yoga, walking in nature, dancing, drawing or journaling, staring up in the sky, daydreaming and letting the flow of thoughts to occur naturally.

… “to be” is not as simple as it sounds; there is discomfort in just being.

But whatever form you take to be still and in the moment, time is required. We are all so busy being busy but the business of being requires stopping to fully re-engage with the self. The time it takes to fully exhale could be the virtual bridge from the act of doing to the state of being.

Have you ever said, “Let me think on this” or “Give me a moment to reflect on that”? Our very language and idiomatic expressions inform us of the need to pause in order to make sense of things. Making sense of ourselves works on exactly the same principle. The act of being takes time and energy.

Nearly three millennia on from Socrates, the contemplation of being still continues to grip the imagination of thinkers. Celebrated 20th century French writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote his famous treatise on the self, Being and Nothingness, cleverly and ironically flipped Socrates’ simple edict, coining the revised axiom, “To do is to be.”

The science of stillness

For those people who do yoga, it is thought that all the work happens at the end of the class where the “savasana” pose is taken. Also called “dead man” or “corpse pose”, the asana is a reclining position where the body lies prostrate on the mat affecting the look of death. But, according to the practice, this is where all the exertion in creating the shapes for the duration of the class comes together as the body absorbs and sublimates all the efforts. Effectively, it is a form of mind–body–soul integration.

We know that in repose or when in deep relaxation, the body’s central nervous system is not agitated. We’re not in a state of flight or fight where the adrenalin is pumping. The parasympathetic system, also known as the rest and digest system, regulates our heart rate, stimulates digestion, activates metabolism and of course helps the body to relax. When the body is at rest, homeostasis or a state of equilibrium ensues, and this is where we do our best contemplating. In this state we can truly absorb being in the moment.

But, of course, our busy lifestyles and constantly being stimulated or agitated mean that life’s trials and travails put pressure on the parasympathetic nervous system. Subsequently, this triggers the production of the hormone cortisol, which is designed to cope with the stressors that destabilise us.

Being still is the gift we give ourselves to check out of life’s busyness. Less really is more. Ironically, when we strive to do too much we end up becoming so little. We diminish ourselves. Sitting back and relaxing really is a state of mind.

The Tao of being

Taoism, like its Eastern stablemate Buddhism, has been embraced by the West in the last few decades. However, while we espouse and embrace its teachings, we find it very hard to enact and incorporate them in our ever-increasingly busy lives. The idea of going with the flow in the way that water gently traverses over rocks in a riverbed still eludes us.

The creator of the Taoist thinking, Lao Tzu, wrote, “Search your heart and see. The way to do is to be.” The notion of being and non-being was a major premise in Taoism as it formed the basis of yin and yang — complementary opposites that cannot exist without the other. While difficult to grasp conceptually, the nexus of being/non-being can be better understood using a more accessible metaphor. Think of a teacup. The cup, in and of itself, while being a vessel, does nothing or has no intrinsic value. But the space inside the cup is the useful part, as it is in this space that the tea can be poured. In Taoist thinking, the vessel is what you can see and is described as being and the space is the entity described as non-being. It cannot be filled without there being emptiness. One cannot exist without the other. Lao Tzu wrote, “Clay is moulded to shape into a pot; yet it is the emptiness within that makes it a utensil.” In the same way, our beings are the vessels but our thoughts, reflections and our creative spirit is what makes us human.

In order to be, we must be open and willing to absorb and to be engaged. The state of being is restorative and ultimately transformative.

The art of being

Four hundred years on, many of us are familiar with Shakespeare’s tragic hero Hamlet, and the opening lines of his most famous soliloquy: “To be or not to be.” Faced with a terrible decision, he is contemplating whether to act or not as he fathoms his heart and purpose. In order for him to act truthfully, he has to do what we term soul-searching. Interestingly, in this same celebrated play, another character, Polonius, counsels his son Laertes with the equally well-worn and recognised line, “To thine own self be true.” The bard really did have something to teach us and his work is more relevant than ever. In order to be in this world, we must be in ourselves. We must cultivate the relationship with self.

The existential movement was fundamentally all about how to live life with meaning and purpose. French writer Albert Camus was an exponent of this thinking. He wrote on the power of introspection and what it means to be a human being. Camus wrote the following poetical summation on the self: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.”

Within and without, we seek to find balance. The art of being is the letting go of the external and the embracing of the internal.

And to be it, we can all do it.

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland is a therapist in private practice on Sydney’s northern beaches helping people resolve the underlying issues that perpetuate conflict or disconnectedness so they can create meaningful and happy lives. Marie speaks at conferences, forums and community events on a variety of topics from wellbeing and positive psychology to practical philosophy.

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