Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Deciding Not to Decide

Since my brother and I both decided some years ago to train as teachers of the FM Alexander Technique, our mother also decided to look into Alexander work and found she liked it a lot. Thanks to regular lessons with a local teacher in Birmigham, she learned to sit and move in ways that caused her to suffer less with back pain. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever heard, applicable equally to Alexander work and Zen practice, I heard from this teacher in Birmingham, via my mother -- a good example of what goes around comes around. The advice was this: "Decide not to decide."

The context was that my mother was worrying about some big decision -- whether or not to move house or some such -- and anxiety about making the right decision was evidently hampering the process of "coming to quiet," which is integral to good Alexander work.

"Decide not to decide."

It really is good advice. When you have got some big decision to make, let go of the desire to arrive at a decision, and the whole body-mind instantly calms down.

"Decide not to decide."
It resonates with Yakusan's famous description of what he was thinking, quoted by Dogen as an instruction for sitting-dhyāna.
"Think the state of not thinking."
"Think into the zone of not thinking."

"Decide not to decide."

On further investigation, however, what one generally finds is that the decision to let go of the desire to arrive at a decision was not deep enough, was not real enough.

It's like the idea of just letting go of thoughts, just letting thoughts pass, like clouds wandering by.

Every half-arsed dabbler in meditation knows that puny principle. But the Buddha's truth of cessation requires more of us than that.

On further investigation, even after I have seen the wisdom of "deciding not to decide," thoughts relating to the outcome I am supposed to have stopped worrying about, continue to arise one after the other.

Recognizing this, what is necessary is to say "NO" and really mean "NO" to the desire to arrive at a decision. In other words, as usual, it is necessary really to say "NO" to the idea of gaining an end -- the end in this instance being "the right decision."

This business of not just letting go of, but really giving up, a desire to gain an end, is at the centre of the Buddha's 3rd noble truth. FM Alexander, borrowing a word from the then nascent discipline of neuro-physiology, called it "inhibition."

The inhibition, it has been observed, over and over again, always needs to be further back than one supposed.

When something goes wrong, FM Alexander said, it is always down to a failure of inhibition.

Too bloody true. Quad Erat Demonstrandum.

Even if, as a result of calm consideration, you have let go of desires,/ You must, as if shining light into darkness, abolish them by means of their opposite. //15.4//

What lies behind them sleeps on, like a fire covered with ashes;/ You are to extinguish it, my friend, by the means of mental development, as if using water to put out a fire. //15.6//

For from that source they re-emerge, like shoots from a seed. / In its absence they would be no more -- like shoots in the absence of a seed. //15.6//


Γιώργος Ασκούνης said...

...abolish them by means of their opposite.
Hi Mike!
How do you understand the above sentence?
As always I am thankful for your work!

Mike Cross said...

Hi George,

It's like Alexander said, we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the egg.

But the egg under discussion has to do with the most mental thing there is, conscious awareness, mindfulness, thinking, inhibition and direction, mental development, cultivation of the power of the mind (bhāvanā).

Attracted to Japanese Zen for our sins, you and I have spent years and years engaged in a brand of sitting practice that is totally opposed to the most mental thing there is.

"Just sitting," taught badly and understood wrongly, can be the most physical thing there is, the most unconscious thing there is. But you and I went out of our way to seek out that kind of practice.

If I sum up the philosophy which I think you and I subscribed to, it is something like this:

We believe the Buddha was enlightened. But if we pursued that enlightenment ourselves, that would be end-gaining. It would not be MU-SHOTOKU. It would be U-SHOTOKU. So instead of even thinking about enlightenment, we will just sit here in a good posture, and let enlightenment take care of itself. What is good posture? Don't ask intellectual questions! Just do it! And if doubts emerge, just go back to concentrating on your posture -- for 10, 30, or 50 years.

How stupid were we? How dim were we? How lacking in brightness was our effort? What kind of bad karma have we had to work through, to arrive where we are, on the outermost surface of a bloody great egg, or at the very bottom of a very big mountain?

Mike Cross said...

Shorter answer:

The opposite of reacting unconsciously to unconscious end-gaining ideas/desires


consciously to attend to a means-whereby principle.

Shorter answer still:

Say No. Direct. Be ready to move.