What most needs attention is the part of us that we seek to avoid feeling. When we have tended to that, we are changed, and the world changes with us.
Let me offer you an example from my own inner monologue that illustrates nondoing as an active principle. I dropped off my car one morning for state inspection and, rather than ask my then-pregnant wife Stella to wake up early to pick me up, walked the five or six miles home. Now let me be clear that this was no hardship at all—I love walking, I was wearing comfortable shoes, and the weather was cold but clear. But as I walked, I started thinking, “Gee, this is taking a long time. I wonder how I can milk this. I know, when I get home I’ll make a little show of being more tired and hungry than I am so that Stella thinks I underwent a hardship for her sake. Then she’ll be extra nice to me.”
That seemed a bit obvious, so I came up with a better idea. “I can put on a brave face and say I’m not tired or hungry, but subtly signal that I am. Then I will get credit not only for having made a sacrifice for her, but also for valiantly trying to keep it secret.”
What would have happened if, instead, I had noticed my secret plan to milk some benefits out of my trek, and then resolved to stop myself at all costs? What would have happened if I’d threatened myself with punishment (guilt, shame, self-castigation, verbal abuse by my inner voice [“What’s wrong with you!”]) and motivated myself with rewards (self-approval, telling myself I was mature, better than Uncle Bob, etc.)? I can tell you what would have happened. I would have withheld from Plan A or B in the obvious ways, but I would have done it nonetheless in a way that gave my own conscious mind plausible deniability. Because if my goal is simply to pass the muster of my own inner judge, then that judge and other parts of me will conspire to arrange a verdict of innocent. I need not elaborate on we humans’ capacity for self-deception. If the motive is self-approval, then self-approval we will get, even if it comes at the expense of everything beautiful.
That sounds alarming, doesn’t it? My purpose here is not to scare you into making a change. Maybe I would if I could, but this is not the kind of change one can be scared into making. I could scare you into trying, perhaps, but the result would be the same as in my scheme of reward and threat above. No, this is the kind of change that happens when it is time for it to happen.
music: Sheila Chandra, “Quiet #9“
….Not that there is anything wrong with work. Work and play, work and leisure … it is time to question these polarities. That doesn’t mean indolence. When I worked in construction the labor was sometimes very strenuous, but it was rarely an ordeal. I didn’t have the feeling of fighting myself or forcing myself. There is a time to make great efforts, a time to push one’s capacities to the limit. We have after all been given those capacities for a reason. But struggle is not supposed to be the default state of life.
The same applies to spiritual practice. You may have also noticed that my recipe for releasing the habits of separation corresponds quite closely with Buddhist teachings and practices of mindfulness. Ah, finally, something to do! Now we can all embark on a heroic effort at mindfulness. We can admire those (especially ourselves, who if not as mindful as, say, Thich Nhat Hanh are at least more mindful than most people, right?) who are more mindful and look with disdain or patronizing indulgence at those who are less. We can use all the same psychological apparati toward a new goal: mindfulness.
I hope after having read this far you are a bit suspicious of this plan. Could it be that mindfulness too comes as a gift, when circumstances make us newly mindful of what had been beneath the threshold of our awareness? I urge you to see mindfulness as a gift and to cherish it as such. Fully accept that gift, indulge in it. Perhaps the path to mindfulness is not one of a fierce mustering of the will. We cannot will the exercise of will—volition too comes as a gift.
Music: Santana, “Flor de Canela>Promise of a Fisherman>Borboleta“