No mumbo jumbo: William S. Burroughs’s simple system for living a meaningful, adventurous life

This is easy…after practice.
This is easy…after practice.
Image: Reuters/Vincent West
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A mindfulness method for straight shooters, created by an outlaw novelist.

The Doing Easy mindfulness method of outlaw novelist William S. Burroughs teaches mastery of small and great things. It’s about having a good time while writing the story of your life, redrafting when things go awry, and keeping neat, a junkie’s cryptic prequel to Mari Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Burroughs had cause to consider doing things over, carefully. In 1951, he killed his wife—Beat poet Joan Vollmer—accidentally, in public, with a gun, during a drinking game. The death haunted him and Burroughs became, understandably, obsessed with perfecting small actions. He developed the The Discipline of DE, or Doing Easy, illuminated in a short story.

Doing Easy is basically Zen for—dare I say it?—straight shooters, illuminated by a great fiction writer who got much wrong in real life. DE simply means doing whatever you do in the easiest most relaxed way you can manage which is also the quickest and most efficient way, as you will find as you advance in DE,” Burroughs explains.

It’s the art of paying attention, which is practiced and doesn’t come naturally but results in mastery of our many varied tasks. Doing Easy isn’t an innate talent for anyone. But it’s also easy, and that’s the point. Just take it easy. Do what you do with care until you can be carefree. Burroughs instructs:

Don’t fumble, jerk, grab an object. Drop cool possessive fingers onto it like a gentle old cop making a soft arrest…When you touch an object weigh it with your fingers, feel your fingers on the object, the skin, blood, muscles, tendons of your hand and arm. Consider these extensions of yourself as precision instruments to perform every movement smoothly and well.

If you can’t do it well, do it over, he says. That applies to everything from pouring tea to rewriting your Great Universal Novel.

Just as a filmmaker shoots a scene over and over until it’s right—informed by the flaws of prior shots—in real life we can practice and perfect until we get things just right. Because the point of doing things is not to get them done, but to do them well. Burroughs in one instance uses, aptly enough, the Wild West quick-draw gunfight to explain:

Only one gun fighter ever really grasped the concept of DE and that was Wyatt Earp. Nobody ever beat him. Wyatt Earp said: It’s not the first shot that counts. It’s the first shot that hits. Point is to draw aim and fire and deliver the slug an inch above the belt buckle. That’s DE. How fast can you do it and get it done?

Doing things attentively is easy. Really. But we have to stop to see what we do. The writer says to start with simple stuff—tidying up, zipping a jacket, washing dishes, getting dressed, making a sandwich. This way, we master ourselves (the greatest frenemy!) and are in alliance with the space around us. “Handle objects with consideration and they will show you all their little tricks,” according to Burroughs.

Create ideal conditions for success, thus preventing the need to do things over subsequently, he says. Then, we can glide rather than bump around. Here’s how: “Think and break down movement into a series of still pictures to be studied and corrected because you have not found the easy way. Once you find the easy way you don’t have to think. It will almost do itself.”

The discipline part of DE sounds hard, maybe. Discipline’s a word we shirk in a fun-loving culture. Actually though, doing things just so is wonderful! If you can. And you can through practice.

By hurrying through everything we think we must do to get to the fun stuff—like watching TV shows half-comatose—we miss out on all the awesome. The simple key to DE is seeing that life’s not drudgery, according to Burroughs.

I’ll show you DE in action. Right now I’m writing. It’s my job and I’m behind on the little schedule in my head that is never met. So that’s a bummer. But it’s also a good time, if I really notice it, like now, typing this out. When I’m attentive, reflecting and not rushing, I notice little things like the pleasant clickety-click of my fingers on the keyboard and great gifts, like—holy smokes, I get to write for the whole world!

That’s much more satisfying than being behind an abstract deadline, believe me.