Practice Makes Perfect

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.

I am not what I think I am

Zen has a rather stark response to any attempt we might make at saying that this or that ‘is who I am’. Am I my job? No, that’s not it. Am I my temperament, my likes and dislikes? No, that’s not it. Am I my religion, my relationships, my memories or my history? No, that’s not it. Am I then the totality of all these things and many more besides? My body, my intellect? No, that’s not it.


So what is the answer to the question, who am I? There isn’t one. Or if there is, it’s not one we can know. If, in Christian language, we say ‘I am a child of God’, does that get us any closer? Well, in one sense it does, in that it doesn’t give us any kind of precise answer but does remind us of our common humanity, our fraternity, with all other children of God. But I think there is great wisdom in shifting attention away from the question as it is formulated. For one thing, such a question risks leading us down the path of wondering what it is that makes ‘me’ unlike ‘you’, a path of differentiation. I don’t think our identity consists in such separations.

If our response to the question ‘who am I’ is ‘I don’t know’, we are probably getting closer to truth. ‘I’ am not primarily a ‘knowing’ being, contra Descartes, but a ‘being’ being. So perhaps the question is better put as ‘how shall I live’ than ‘who am I’. In sitting zazen, we let go of the notion that we are a mind controlling a body and simply realise our existence. Indeed, one gets to the point of no longer even saying ‘I am’, but simply ‘am’ and then, perhaps, to the point of saying nothing at all. It is in the place of such self-forgetting emptiness that we touch the true fabric of life, the generative, spacious emptiness from which life springs (formless and void, to use the language of Genesis!).

But at a very practical level, there is a great simplicity and a great relief in simply letting go of the kind of self-preoccupation that places a question of our identity at the heart of life. It turns out that we realise our true identity by not fretting about it. Somewhat like ‘the birds of the air and the lilies of the field’ as one perceptive teacher once put it…