An issue that comes up a lot is the question of ‘action versus acceptance’. Sometimes it seems that life should be all about action – making decisions, getting things done, fulfilling ambitions, completing long-held plans. On the other hand, we often turn to meditation because the active life seems overwhelming, and we need to rest.
Hence the question: ‘If you meditate all the time, how do you get anything done?’
FAITH AND WORKS
There is, for instance, the stereotype image of the wise man on top of a hill, or in a cave, sitting in the lotus position, apparently calm and peaceful.
In the standard pictures, we don’t see Buddha going for an early morning run; Mohammed sorting out the conveyance on a house; Jesus checking he’s put out the bins. And yet even these key figures must have got involved in a practical life, made decisions, got things done, had aims, behaved according to some sort of plan.
The emphasis, in our idealisation of religious and spiritual figures, is often on the ‘faith’ part of their behaviour, on serenity, wisdom and sureness. The Bible doesn’t often say ‘And Jesus hesitated, crumbled into a bit of a mess, and then made a hasty decision.’
In consequence, when it comes to ‘works’ – to enacted behaviour – our spiritual books can be rather unhelpful, and even prejudiced. We tend to worship a glossy version of saints, and celebrate their greatest hits. That can ignore the fact that we are all born with human weaknesses, awkward traits, and that vital thing called character which makes us us.
LACK OF GUIDANCE AS TO ACTION
The result of all this is an iconisation of perfection. It looks, from religious texts, as if saints don’t fart and burp. It looks, from public appearances, as if the Queen has no bad habits, that certain TV stars are always immaculately turned out, that politicians are always certain of their ideas.
Their actions, it seems, happen magically; furthermore, their less creditable actions magically disappear, as though they never existed. With such a revised concept of history, it is no wonder that we feel inadequate when it comes to action. All our examples and heroes are presented as though their actions were easily decided, involved little doubt, and were carried through without mishap.
It’s why we love superheroes. Their lives are apparently stripped of complicating factors, or reduced to one or two easy complications that work in a storyline.
Real life is not like that. Real life is often indecisive. It often involves NOT getting things done for inordinate lengths of time. It involves changing ambitions, plans collapsing.
To be fair, the traditional stories do include aspect of this. The story of the life of the Buddha includes a fair amount of trial and error, as he finds his way and experiments, sometimes for years, with options that don’t work out.
In that sense, real life can be an absolute mess!
WHERE IS THE PLACE FOR ACTION?
Personally, I don’t think there’s an all-encompassing answer to that one – it depends on too many factors, such as the way we organise society, and the rules we choose to accept or discard.
But I have a few ideas about how we might decide on personal actions, and motivate ourselves.
I think that most of the time we pay little attention to exactly who we are and what makes us thrive. We are always pushing ourselves to be what we aren’t, and force ourselves into spaces we don’t fit into.
I like to use a plant analogy. Plant experts take the time to work out the personal needs of different types of plant – how much water, how much food, conditions, location. It’s a nice exercise to do the same for yourself – to take time to work out what environment you flourish in.
Or, if you like, you can see yourself as a gardener, and the different bits of your life as different areas of the garden. You have a design choice as to how you fill them. Some areas will be more private, and some will be shared or communal areas. Wherever or whoever you are, you will have areas of your mind and environment which you can exercise some form of influence over. They are your garden.
Imagine your life as a garden. What are your ‘weeds’, and what are your ‘desirable plants’? What shape would you like it to have? How are you going to manage the dilemmas of location, choice of content, maintenance, resources… Are you going to focus on one theme only, or have lots of different areas of interest?
Viewing your life as a garden design gives you some freedom to decide, but also focuses your mind on the need for balance, in order to make the whole thing manageable.
Life is not just contemplation – it also involves action. Spiritual books and myths tend to stereotype and oversimplify action. Spiritual leaders often don’t seem very real. They don’t seem to get their hands dirty! Those parts of the story are left out. Real life is messy.
We can seek refuge in a contemplative life, but even then, we still have to design a life that works.
One way to do this, it to imagine you are a gardener, and you are in charge of filling your mind, and your environment, with content that works for you. How can you make sure it is manageable, balanced, and holds enough interest for you? Which bits are you going to redesign?