Preston Moore explains how he transformed himself from a human doing into a human being. All it took was a whole lot of nothing.
A decade ago, I left my career as a trial lawyer. For 25 years, arguing for a living had occupied most of my waking hours—and then there were the nightmares. I left because I felt a growing urge to use my voice to express my own convictions instead of hiring it out to the highest bidder. Selling my voice brought lots of positive reinforcement from clients and colleagues, but that urge to have my voice be my own wouldn’t go away.
So I went to seminary. It was the right move. But after a few years in ministry, I began to see how hard it can be for a man to connect with his own convictions. Even though my new work was very different from my old work, much of my ministry was driven by that old desire for positive reinforcement—for having others affirm my self-worth by responding favorably to my work.
At the same time, ministry was also giving me a sense of what it would be like to live out of a very different kind of desire—a hunger to have transformative experiences in my own life and to support others in doing the same. To cultivate that hunger, I needed a period of intense introspection.
I began what I called the “Nothing Project.” The essence of it was to empty my life of as much doingness as possible. I had always been a human doing more than a human being—always making sure I never had nothing to do. I couldn’t imagine anything more negative than being called a “do-nothing.”
Looking back over my life, though, I caught some glimpses of how my immersion in doingness had actually been a way of avoiding deeper self-knowledge. I just made sure I would never have any time for that. I hadn’t admitted it to myself before, but I was anxious about what I might find.
Like, maybe deep down I would turn out to be shallow.
I needed to turn toward that anxiety instead of away from it. I needed to find out what was left of me after removing the external sources of identity and self-worth—particularly my work. That meant becoming—for awhile—what I had always scorned: a do-nothing.
Other people may affirm the worth of what I do—winning cases as a lawyer, teaching, preaching, or counseling as a minister. But if an affirmation is dependent on what grade I get for doing something, then it’s not about self-worth. Others may hold up a mirror to help me see that I’m worthy, but ultimately my sense of self-worth has to be generated from within. (For a valuable rendering of how others can play this mirroring role, watch Bennett Schneider’s vlog, here.)
My wife Jennifer and I had been a co-ministry team. With her gracious support, I stepped back from that role. Letting my wife support me financially in this time of wandering in my own interior desert was a big first step toward where I needed to go.
I stopped preaching. No churchgoers saying nice things about Sunday sermons. No speeches to give, no articles to write, no classes to teach. No audiences to give me their applause. No hurling down theological thunderbolts.
I spent my days on long nature walks, journaling, reading books about spirituality and meditation, and in the most ordinary tasks. In just being. I started taking care of my body instead of treating it like a cart for hauling my brain around. The theme running through these times was to go cold turkey on external accomplishment—on anything that would earn credit in the eyes of others for the sake of affirming self-worth.
Other than washing the dishes and other utterly mundane tasks that earn no recognition, the only things I “did” were a few supervised retreat programs of intensive solitude, silence, stillness, and emptiness. These too were experiences of being, not doing.
I know how extreme this must sound. But what medicine this Nothing Project has been for a lifetime of compulsive hyperproductivity.
Nothingness turned out to be a place where much is happening. In that environment, inner voices can be heard that are usually drowned out by the din. The flow of intangible life-giving energies can be detected, appreciated.
These energies go by a long list of names—life force, eros, god, spirit, wholeness, holiness, and many more. The names aren’t that important, but connecting with these energies is tremendously important. They flow into the inner space that comes from emptying the self of doingness; and then they flow out again, vacating the space into which whatever is next in life can flow.
Being in prolonged solitude, silence, and stillness also revealed to me a worthy self—a creature who is more than a data-crunching, decision-making machine made of meat. Turning my attention away from things and toward emptiness has brought clarity about the big issues in life: who I am, why I am here; how I know what I know; what sources of authority I find to be genuine; what tends to lure me away from a healthy spiritual life; and even what my death means. Not perfect clarity, but far more than ever before.
I am not a troubled guest on this earth. I belong here, without regard to the size of my accomplishments. I am grateful for a world that is astonishing per se, without having to be compared to anything else. I don’t need to engineer my life and my self into conformity with society’s ideals. I need only receive gratefully the life and self I’ve been given.
No one ever heard me say things like this before the Nothing Project.
Many things in my life have changed over the course of 61 years. But the changes brought about by the Nothing Project were of a wholly different order. They brought me to a new place from which to look at my life. With that shift in perspective, everything is different.
My Nothing Project is over, and in another sense it will never be over. I am back in the world of doing now—writing articles and books, preaching and teaching, going on downward inward expeditions with people interested in finding a spiritual path. I have brought Nothing back with me from Nothingness, which will remain a holy place for me to meet myself and to meet spirit again and again. I go back there every day, if only for thirty minutes or so. It feels like a homecoming.
And what about you? When you look at your life, do you ask “is this really all there is?” Buying one cool new thing after another? Angling for one more promotion? One more notch in your belt? Some more competitors to keep up with or leave in the dust? Is there time and space in your life for you to get to know your self, to get current with who you are now? And who owns your voice?
Is it possible that if you did Nothing—just for awhile—everything might be different?