Do Not Do What You Are Told!

The question of how one shapes one’s life according to one’s principles and insights, religious or otherwise, is a perennial one. In Western terms, we can sometimes have a tendency to think that the basic pattern is to implement our ideas, in other words, to do what we are told. We are told to act in a particular way, let’s say by criminal law, or the rules of a sports governing body, or the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes, so all we have to do is to know something then do it. The problem is that this doesn’t work. I regularly tell myself to be more organised. I know I need to be more organised and I know how to be more organised, but I don’t do it. It’s the same thing with compulsive or addictive behaviours. We know we shouldn’t do them, but we keep on doing them all the same.

So I come to the conclusion that it’s our model that’s wrong. Maybe the whole business of transforming our lives is not a question of having the right ideas and implementing them, but of changing our way of seeing things by first changing our way of doing things. In other words, we need to learn that the business of life is a question of practice or, to use an old-fashioned religious term, discipleship. By practice, I mean the business of repeatedly doing the right thing again and again, starting with one characteristic and defining thing. In Zen practice, that one defining thing is sitting – seated, non-discursive meditation. Why should this be such an important foundation of our business of engaging with life as a matter of practice? Well, put simply, because we know it works from those who’ve tried it. I know that’s not a very clever answer, and I’m sure I could come up with other reasons, but this is a rather compelling one.

Well, maybe I will give just one or two other reasons why this kind of practice might be foundational. The main one is that this very simple practice is a way of trying out a way of living that is free from compulsion, free from our fixation with ideas and free from grand aspirations. When we sit still, breathe deeply and do not entertain our thoughts as they come and go, we learn the simple path of attentiveness. It seems to me that pretty much everything else flows from that. Of course, to set out on a course of action to change our behaviour requires that we want to change it in the first place, but even then I think it is possible to learn more about how much we want to do something simply by beginning to do it. So be a practitioner, a disciple, a beginner!