What to Do When There is No Doer

Spiritual teachings suggest that there is no doer, that there is no separate self that is the source of our actions. This teaching is the source of much confusion, as it is contrary to our experience. It seems that there is a doer and that “I” am the doer: “I” get up in the morning, “I” walk the dog, and “I” drive to work. How do these things happen if there is no doer? And if there is no doer, then what do I do? How do I live my life if there is no one here to live it? What do I do if there is no doer?
This confusion exists because spiritual teachings point to something that doesn’t exist in the usual way. The nature of reality can’t be described or explained with words, and it can’t be experienced through the ordinary senses. In speaking about something that can’t be spoken about, the easiest approach is often to use negation. If you can’t speak directly about something, then you are left with saying what it is not.
So spiritual teachings contain a lot of negation: There is no self. There is no doer. The world is an illusion. Not this. Not that. Negation can be effective in pointing us away from false ideas about the ultimate truth of things, and it can encourage us to look within to see the falseness of the idea of a “me.” If you take a moment to look for yourself, you will see that there is nothing you can identify as a separate self. So, in this sense, it is accurate to say that there is no self and no doer.
However, the mind can’t conceive of or even really experience nothing. If you are experiencing something, then that is by definition not nothing. So when the mind is pointed to nothing or to the absence of a self or a doer, it makes a picture or concept of nothing and thinks about that. If we are told there is no doer, the mind makes a picture of the absence of somebody, something like an empty chair or a broom sweeping by itself.
Again, this contradicts our actual experience. There is something in the chair when I sit down in it. The broom only sweeps when somebody picks it up and starts sweeping. So there is obviously a distortion or inaccuracy in the approach of negation. While it does evoke a certain experience of emptiness that can be spacious and restful, it doesn’t capture the totality of reality. It leaves out our real world experience.
Another approach is the opposite: Instead of saying there is no self and there is no world and there is no doer, we can say there is only Self, the world is all one thing, and it is this totality of existence that does everything. In other words, “everything” sweeps the floor and sits in the chair. If we look deeply into our experience, there is some truth to this perspective. If we trace back all of the causes of any action, we see that there are an infinite number of influences or causes for the simplest action.
For example, you may sweep the floor because your mother taught you to keep a spotless house and your dad taught you to be responsible, not to mention all of the other messages you received from the culture and society about cleanliness and responsibility. Add to that all of the people that influenced your mom and dad and everyone else who ever had an impact on you. And what about all the factors that led to the particular path of evolution that gave you those opposable thumbs that allow you to use a broom? If you really trace it back to all of the factors at play when you pick up a broom and start sweeping, you can see how it might make more sense to say that everyone and everything is sweeping the floor. There is a doer, but it is not you. It is everything. And by the way, all of these factors are at work if you don’t sweep the floor. Not doing something is just another thing we do.
This approach of including more and more instead of negating everything is also a useful teaching tool. It evokes a sense of the oneness and richness of life. But again, it doesn’t really capture the direct experience of an action like sweeping. If only “everything” would sweep my floor, then “I” could go take a nap. Speaking about everything doesn’t really capture the sense of no self that is experienced when we look within using spiritual practices such as self inquiry.
So if it is not a complete description to say there is no doer, and it is also not a complete description to say that everything is the doer, what is wrong with just saying that “I” sweep the floor and be done with it? For purely practical purposes this is enough of a description, but is it really a complete description? As we have already seen, it leaves out all of the rich and complex causes of our actions, and it leaves out the absence of a separate self that we discover when we look within. It also doesn’t suggest that there is more to this reality than meets the eye. Even if deeper spiritual realities can’t be described with words, does this mean they don’t exist?
So we are left with quite a dilemma. It is incomplete to say there is no doer, it is incomplete to say that everything is the doer, and it is incomplete to say that “I” am the doer. It is like a multiple choice test where all of the answers are wrong! Yet what is it like to not have an answer? What is it like to hold the question even when we have exhausted all of the possible answers?
The question of what is going on here, what is this experience of doing, can be a rich experience in and of itself. The question can put us more in touch with our experience than any answer can. The question invites a direct sensing of all of these various levels of our experience. As the broom moves across the floor, is it possible to simultaneously experience the emptiness within, the richness and oneness of all things and the personal actions of our particular body? Why do we have to choose one?
And what about the original question, What do I do? Could this also be a rich opportunity to explore all of the dimensions of existence? Why does there have to be a right answer? Can the question itself evoke a deeper sensing of life and an endless willingness to question again and again? What do I do now? And what about now? The gift may be in the question itself, not in some final answer. Life is unfolding in ever new and different ways, so maybe we can only discover in each new moment what the everything and nothing is going to do next.
There is an assumption that spiritual teachings are supposed to bring us to spiritual answers, that we are supposed to get somewhere finally. But what if the point of this spiritual journey is the journey itself? What if all of the answers are true and relevant when they arise, and yet they become irrelevant in the next breath?
The question of what is doing is never done, never fully answered. And so perhaps the question of what to do is not meant to ever be done or fully answered. Letting go of the idea of a right or final answer can make the question come alive in this very moment. What are you doing right now? What is most true to do now? And then what about now? It is always time to ask again because it is always a new now.
Just for this moment, find out what happens if you just allow yourself to not know what is the right thing to do, who would do it, and even if there is anything to do, or if doing even really happens. When you question that deeply, is there more or less of a compulsion to act in unhealthy or ignorant ways? Or is there a natural curiosity and sense of wonder that arises and puts you very much in touch with all of the mysterious elements that make up this particular moment? Does this curiosity lead you to rash and silly decisions, or does it allow impulses and intuitions to arise from deeper places within your being? If you know less and less about doing, what happens next?