In a fascinating piece in today’s Guardian, Tim Harford makes a very compelling argument for caution as we develop an ever more automated life for ourselves. Using the example of a tragic airplane crash where the pilots had lost the skills necessary to intervene when the autopilot handed back control to them, he urges a different approach to the use of automation in such developments as the driverless car. The problem is one that any musician or sportsperson will recognise: when you don’t practice your physical skills, you lose the ability to react well when instinctive responses are needed. It’s one thing to know in your head what you need to do, quite another to have the physical skill to enact what you know. In particular, he suggests that it is the process of regularly navigating complex or dangerous situations that prepares us for more extreme challenges. Those who have read John Irving’s book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, will remember the eponymous hero’s regular practising of ‘the move’ that he knows will someday become a matter of life and death (I won’t say more so as not to spoil the plot!).
It is no coincidence that Zen ‘practitioners’, in common with many other Buddhist traditions, speak of their ‘practice’ rather than their ‘faith’. What we do sitting on a cushion every day is nothing more nor less than practising life. It’s not a question of ‘getting our heads straight’ about life or refining our ideas about life, it’s a question of practising what it means to be alive, free from notions and attachments, free simply to live in the present attentively. This is as much a physical as a mental practice (if one can talk of these things separately) which develops our capacity to be fully present and can stand us in good stead for those times when all we want to do is be somewhere else rather than face what is in front of us.