Trust and the Practice of ‘Nothing’s Happening’

This article first appeared on

I was on retreat for the weekend. Twice a year, a group of practitioners from the Insight Meditation Community of Richmond rent The Clearing–a space in Amelia County that belongs to the Quaker community. We spend two days in silence, practicing meditation and listening to recorded teachings.

I’ve been on this retreat several times. By Sunday afternoon I am usually feeling very still and calm. I’ve usually been visited by a couple of profound insights. I have usually touched into some deeper states of concentration.

Not this time.

This time, I spent two days trying to observe my mind, sense my surroundings, follow my breath. I spent some time walking in the cool early-spring woods. I practiced yoga. I cooked and washed dishes, sat meditation and looked at the stars.

I felt the usual tiredness that comes from halting our manically-paced lives. I felt the deprivation of my habitual comforts–books, an evening meal, privacy. Mostly I felt like nothing was happening.

Which is, in itself, not a problem. What was a problem were my expectations that something should be happening. That there was something “not ok” about my experience.

I felt about as mindful as I do on any other typical day. Which is to say, my mind wandered often–planning and worrying, remembering, complaining, doubting and chastising. Around and around it spun, a dog chasing its own tail. And I watched it the best I could.

Woven through all of this mental activity was a steady stream of judgment: Is this it? Nothing’s happening! No insights, no deep peace, no spontaneous joy. I must not be trying hard enough. I should really make myself sit the full hour without opening my eyes once. If I did that, I bet I would feel something happening. Or maybe if I walked slower during the walking meditations. Yeah, that would do it. Then I would be getting some results from devoting a whole weekend to practice…

I am reminded of a Zen story I encountered somewhere. The student approached her meditation teacher and asked, “How long will it take me to reach liberation if I follow the path?” The teacher replied, “10 years.” The student answered, “But what if I practice all day, every day and work very hard. Then, how long will it take me?” The teacher paused and replied, “Then for you it will take 20 years.”

This practice is not linear. There are predictable, observable results of regular practice, to be sure. But, we cannot simply plug our expectations in, sit down on the cushion every day, and receive exactly the solutions we ordered.

That is meditation practice in the service of the ego. And, even if it did work (which it doesn’t!), how limited would the benefits of practice be if they were stuck within the bounds of our personal sense of what’s possible?

What was needed in my practice over the weekend–and what i so often needed–was an action of letting go and trusting.

In Pali, the language of the Buddha, the word often translated as “trust” is “saddha.” Saddha also means confidence or faith. And the texts are very clear about the trajectory of saddha over time. We move from bright faith, into verified faith and onward to unshakable faith. First we have to trust others who claim to have reaped the benefits of practice. Then we learn to trust our own repeated experience of practice. Over time, we see that there is nothing we cannot meet with mindfulness, nothing which is not a part of our process of waking up to what’s here. Even “nothing’s happening” is ground for practice.
We trust that, in ways our minds cannot always understand, the practice of returning again and again to the present moment is all that is needed to realize our freedom. We do not have to have some specific kind of experience. We just have to pay attention to whatever experience we are having in the moment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s