Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Playbook of Life, "right" action, and planting rice

At the risk of flogging what is by now a very dead horse--sorry, I can't seem to think of a less ahimsa-violating metaphor--I would like to say a few more things about my probably-not-happening-this-summer Mysore trip (officially, I'm supposed to be there from July 1st to August 1st; so, until July 1st comes and goes, I'll continue to refer to it as "probably-not-happening" rather than simply "not happening", out of a somewhat desperate hope that something might somehow materialize to make the trip possible at the last minute...).

But back to what I was going to say. Michelle left a very thoughtful comment on my previous post about this probably-not-happening-this-summer trip. She writes:

"...consider that there is never a "right time" for anything that is really "big" or profound in our lives, or that could change the course of our lives. These experiences seem to arise - to use your word - organically. They happen when they happen, and sometimes planning way ahead for them isn't possible - i.e. falling in love; having a child, finding your dream job."

These are very wise words. When I first read these words, the first thought that struck me was that perhaps we as a society or culture have overused the word "right." What do I mean? Let me start by telling you a story. I have this feeling that as a society or culture, we are conditioned to think that there is a set of rules somewhere that applies universally to every situation we may face in our lives: Just apply those rules correctly, and we will automatically know what the right action to take will be. It's almost as if somewhere, someplace, God (or whoever it is that runs this bad reality show we call "life") has written this Playbook of Life which contains an exhaustive set of rules that can be applied to every conceivable situation in life. Want to land your dream job? Follow steps A, B, and C on page x of the playbook, and you will get that job for sure. Want to find the love of your life? Follow steps D, E, and F on page y, and you will find the love of your life waltzing into your previously mundane and meaningless existence. Want to be a perfect parent? Consult steps G, H, and I on page z. And (in my case) want to know whether this summer is the "right" time to go to Mysore? Follow steps J, K, and L on page w...

Do you own a copy of this?
[Image taken from here]

And so and so forth. We are conditioned to think that in every conceivable situation in life, there is a "right", Playbook-sanctioned action that will land us dream jobs, find us our loves, turn us more or less magically into perfect parents, or tell us when the right time to go to Mysore is. Depending on who you are and what your background is, the Playbook may take many forms. For some people, the Bible or some religious text functions as such a playbook. For others, it may be what their parents or grandparents taught them growing up, while for yet others, it may be loyalty to a country or organization. For some yogis, it may even be the Yoga Sutra.

Anyway, whatever concrete incarnation one's Playbook happens to take, the general idea is the same. If you don't know what the "right" action to take in any situation is, then either you don't know the Playbook well enough, or you haven't tried hard enough to do what the Playbook says you should do. Or maybe you simply haven't grown old enough: There is this idea that the older we grow, the more pages of the Playbook will be revealed to us, and we will be "wiser" people who are better able to do the "right" things.


But what if this Playbook is merely a figment of our ego-fueled-imagination? What if it never actually existed? What if there is no such thing as the "right" action in any situation? What if there are no steps A, B, C, or D,E,F, that we can follow to get what we want in life?... I can keep multiplying these "what ifs", but I think you get the drift here. If you don't, then no amount of "what ifs" will get the point across anyway; in which case, I'm sorry I wasted so much of your time making you read this post :-)

But if you get the drift, then the next question is: Where does that leave us? If nothing--not even, say, the Yoga Sutra--can tell us what the "right" thing to do in any situation is, what are we to do? One answer is quite simply: Nothing. There is nothing to be done. Here's something from Eckhart Tolle:

"If you are not spending all of your waking life in discontent, worry, anxiety, depression, despair, or consumed by other negative states; if you are able to enjoy simple things like listening to the sound of the rain or the wind; if you can see the beauty of clouds moving across the sky or be alone at times without feeling lonely or needing the mental stimulus of entertainment; if you find yourself treating a complete stranger with heartfelt kindness without wanting anything from him or her... it means a space has opened up, no matter how briefly, in the otherwise incessant stream of thinking that is the human mind. When this happens, there is a sense of well-being, of alive peace, even though it may be subtle."

But what has this feeling of being present, this feeling of spacious well-being or alive peace, to do with doing anything or nothing? Tolle continues:

"Presence is a state of inner spaciousness. When you are present, you ask: How do I respond to the needs of this situation, of this moment? In fact, you don't even need to ask the question. You are still, alert, open to what is. You bring a new dimension into the situation: space. Then you look and you listen. Thus you become one with the situation. When instead of reacting against the situation, you merge with it, the solution arises out of the situation itself... Then, if action is possible or necessary, you take action or rather right action happens through you. Right action is action that is appropriate to the whole."

Taking a cue from Tolle, I would like to make a little suggestion here: Perhaps the time has come in our society or culture where the idea of "right" action is no longer very helpful in navigating this crazy reality show called modern life. Perhaps it is better to speak of appropriate action, action that is appropriate to the whole at any given moment. But how can I know whether my action is appropriate to the whole at any given moment? After all, it's not as if I can call time out and go hide in a corner and ask the universe, "What is the action that is appropriate to the whole at this moment?" any time a decision needs to be made. Well, I don't know of any easy answers to this quandary here; I'm also still trying to figure out this bad reality show myself. But the following story from Mencius might be of some help here:

"There was a man from Sung who pulled at his rice plants because he was worried about their failure to grow. Having done so, he went on his way home, not realizing what he had done. “I am worn out today,” said he to his family. “I have been helping the rice plants to grow.” His son rushed out to take a look and there the plants were all shriveled up. There are few in the world who can resist the urge to help their rice plants grow. There are some who leave the plants unattended, thinking that nothing they can do will be of any use. They are the people who do not even bother to weed. There are others who help the plants grow. They are the people who pull at them. Not only do they fail to help them but they do the plants positive harm”  

Moral of the story? Do not be the kind of person who either (i) pulls at his rice plants, trying to help them grow faster, or (ii) simply neglects the plants and don't even bother to weed. In any situation, if we are to take the action that is appropriate to the whole, we need to look, listen, and know what we are dealing with. Pull what needs to be pulled (the weeds), then back off, and give the important things (the "rice plants") the space they need to grow and flourish.

Pull the weeds, then back off.
[Image taken from here]

Actually, this applies to asana practice as well: Although we may not know this, most of the "work" that we do in asana is done with the intention of removing obstacles and giving the body the space it needs to express the asana naturally (think about, say, opening the front body to facilitate backbending). And this is also true of many other things in life too. The idea is: Do what needs to be done, then back off, and get out of your own way. Easier said than done, I know. But we do our best :-)       

1 comment:

  1. glad you like my photo (pulling rice) - would be nice if you'd asked to use it and given me a credit.