Do Nothing

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T. 

If you were to watch me work all day you’d probably notice that I spend periods doing nothing. I mean I’m like this when I’m with patients. I wrote about this a bit in a review of K.C. Cole’s book The Hole in the Universe but feel that I’ve got more to say, so here it is. 

In 1799 the finest medical men of the day bled George Washington to death because he’d wakened several hours earlier with a sore throat. This is an historical fact and you could look it up if you were so inclined. I read about this in a speech delivered to the American Academy of Orthopedic Medicine by their president a couple years ago, so I assume it’s true. 

This story came to mind after I did some other reading about the cultural significance of the “Seinfeld” TV series that ran for most of the 90s and remains available daily as its reruns have spread in syndication throughout the country, and, for all I know, around the world. I still watch an episode maybe three times a week. It’s the show that became famous for being about nothing. 

So what’s the connection between Seinfeld and the father of our country? And what’s this got to do with therapy? 

Let me explain; it has to do with doing nothing.

Bill Wyman wrote of Seinfeld’s final episode, the one where the characters are arrested, tried and convicted of violating a “Good Samaritan” law by not assisting a man being mugged in their presence: “A downer! cried the critics. Well, duh. Scriptwriter David's semiotic coup in this episode was to try, in a last parting burst, to get the audience to consider the implications of a show about nothing that dominated the most powerful medium of its time. Finally, almost in desperation, he criminalized the act. Sometimes, he was insisting, nothing is something.” (Salon.com)

Long ago I began telling my students that my own growth as a clinician was concurrent with a reduction in my technique of handling. I told them that the less I coerced my patients, the more they were likely to respond in ways that proved helpful. “Eventually,” I say, “I tried to do nothing, and that seemed to be the best way of approaching patients that had ‘nothing wrong’ with them. And when I got them to stop trying to create a helpful movement, the stillness revealed all that they truly needed to do.”

As long as we are alive we are always doing something. But as long as you think, “I am doing this,” or “I have to do this,” or “I must attain something special,” you are actually not doing anything. When you give up, when you no longer want something, or when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something.   

If you continue this simple practice every day, you will obtain some wonderful power. Before you obtain it, it is something wonderful, but after you obtain it, it is nothing special.

From Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki 

I have a calendar in my office entitled “Simplicity” that has beneath one of the photos, “Learn to pause or nothing worthwhile will catch up to you.” This month it reminds me that corrective movement emerges only after there is a brief stillness-just enough time for the internal conversation that precedes the creative act. That moment in the patient shouldn’t be interrupted by some therapist doing something to them. On top of that, manual technique should allow them some space to move in the fashion they want.

“If there were no empty space” Lucretius wrote, sensibly enough, “everything would be one solid mass.” If you believed in atoms, nothing was a necessity. In order to move, atoms, and objects composed of them, needed a space to move into when they changed places. Without the void, there would be no elbowroom for motion. The material universe would be like a game of musical chairs with no open seats and no place left for anyone to go.”  

From The Hole in the Universe by K.C. Cole 

Therapy has conformed to a world increasingly filled with activity, obligation, information and exhortations to produce something. “Nothing” (like silence) is “a-voided” whenever possible. A therapy department where nothing is done and as little as possible is said is truly hard to find, but for my patients with “nothing wrong,” it seems to be ideal. Out of this nothing emerges all that is normally held in by the social conventions of posturing and posing. To say that such an atmosphere promotes relaxation reveals, to me, a misunderstanding of the power and necessity of relaxation’s opposite; expression. Expression, especially unconscious, creative expression finds a place to do its job of making us better in a number of ways only when “nothing’s wrong” is understood as an opportunity for healthful movement to fill the void. The creative expression of the patient is best viewed as a solo act. It’s the therapist’s job to witness, not to do anything. 

“What does your Master teach?” asked a visitor. 

“Nothing,” said the disciple. 

“Then why does he give discourses?” 

“He only points the way. He teaches nothing” 

The visitor couldn’t make sense out of this, so the disciple made it clearer: “If the Master were to teach, we would make beliefs out of his teachings. The Master is not concerned with what we believe-only with what we see.” 

From One Minute Wisdom by Anthony De Mello 

Now, think of George Washington’s death for a moment. Back then the finest medical practitioners often bled and purged their patients. It didn’t work of course. Some think that the resultant hypotension and anemia fooled the physicians into thinking the disease process was easing. It’s likely that doing nothing would have been a much better idea in many cases. This probably accounts for the popularity of Homeopathy early in the 19th century. It did nothing, and that worked better. 

Don’t get me wrong; I’m convinced that in order to do nothing effectively you must pay an enormous price. If I do nothing without a clear and constantly evolving understanding of the body’s deep models I run the risk of misinterpretation and inappropriate response to the patient’s expression. As they say, there’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore looking like an idiot. What I don’t do may not look impressive, but Dolly Parton summed up my attitude toward it when she said, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”  

When I employ Simple Contact nothing sustains me, guides me, and it offers my patients a place to go that they should find helpful and relieving. Learn what you need to know, then try doing nothing yourself.