The business of getting the necessities is, for many people, a boring necessity. It is livelihood, not life. For them, life begins only after the work has finished.
This is especially true when the work has to be done alone, with no one to talk to. Making endless entries in computers down to scrubbing the floor and steps, it is said to be soul-destroying work, in which there is no progress. One is simply a replaceable element in a machine.
From the point of view of yoga, this is a big mistake. It is in just those jobs where not much mental alertness is required that there is a better chance for inner progress.
They are good conditions for practising a special form of meditation – the meditation on bare action.
Normally when doing these jobs, the mind is full of stray thoughts. If there has been a quarrel recently, the mind becomes cries of ‘How could they say that! I ought to have told them… and I will next time…’ and so on, endlessly. Little dramas are played out in imagination, dramas of triumph or terrible disaster.
If on the other hand not much has happened recently, the mind drops into vague daydreams, or resentment at having to do a job like this.
In either case, the action is done with half a mind, almost on the fringe of attention.
Conscious Action in Static Environment
The yoga method is, first of all, to make the action fully conscious. Taking the scrubbing as the example, people practising yoga as they scrub feel the weight of the brush in the hand, and its shape and the strength of the bristles. They make their hand soft, and mould it around the outline of the brush. They look at the white of the suds so like the foam on the seashore. Now they make the strokes. Many scrubbers have a hard hand, and a hard posture. The yogin feels the centre line of the body, and moves the body a little into the stroke. Some of the force is put in from the whole body, not just from the arm.
It may take some practice to learn how to use the action of the whole body. It can be practised first of all on simple things, such as opening a swing door. Most people do this with the hand and arm; try practising with the hand as a hook and the arm as a transmitter of the force from the slight turn of the hips. When moving a piece of furniture, again, do not plant the feet and keep the body fixed while using simply the arms. Bend the knees a little bit and feel the push as from the centre of the body, – the navel point to be precise. When settling down to write, set oneself in a balanced position and symmetrically, not with one shoulder hunched forward. In these ways the action becomes more efficient and alive. Let us return to the scrubbing example to typify what happens next. After some practice, the action will seem to become more or less automatic (whether it is being done efficiently or not). This is the important time. In the ordinary way the mind, now set free or partially free from the necessity of attending, begins to develop its own daydreams or fantasies or reactions. There is no inner progress at all. The yogic method on the contrary is to practice discarding everything except the movement and its frame.
Ideas of how long it is going to take or what one is going to do when it is finished or whether it will be appreciated are the first to go; and then the whirlpool of emotional memories or anticipations and then perhaps the wet rot of remorse or the dry rot of triviality.
We say “Discard”: but how is it to be done? People say it is impossible to control interruptions by casual thoughts but if we are watching an interesting television programme, and someone comes in to gossip, we have no difficulty in saying: “Oh, shut up while I look at this” and they do shut up.
In a little bit the same way the yogi practises saying “Shut Up” to his casual thoughts and desires and fears just for the time being in these favourable circumstances. They are favourable because scrubbing the floor or steps does not directly produce in us any strong desire or fear or even casual thoughts. Now is the time, now is the chance, to practise emptying the rubbish out of the mind.
What now remains? There is the scrubbing and the floor and a very dim awareness of how long it is to go on. No more than that. And this is an opportunity for a real advance in inner training. It is the first stage but to say that does not mean that it is insignificant. When this stage is even touched there begins to be an invigoration of the whole life.
After this first stage of what is rightly called conscious action there is a higher stage for those who have considerable experience: this is the awareness “I am not doing it.”
Begin to relax the idea: “I am doing it.” At first when you try this the action will simply stop. Set it going again by a movement of the will and when it is once more in full swing again begin to drop the idea that you are doing it. After a number of false starts, you will suddenly become aware that the brush is moving of itself. The brush moves slowly at first and then picks up speed and energy. After quite some practice you will find that the strokes of the brush are much more energetic and precise: “It” is making them. This is followed by an invigoration and enlivening of the whole body mind complex.
Aspirants should realise that the first little successes are nearly always attributed to the individual himself or herself. Individuality springs up again and reactivates the sense of agency. Experienced teachers say that it is only an inner reverence that can keep the consciousness in the calmness of non-ego.
Hints can be recognised in all the great spiritual traditions but sometimes it is only hints that seem to have survived at least for the general public. The ancient Christian saying Laborare Est Orare, Work is Prayer is an example. It says enough to get you interested, but not enough to tell you just what to do.
The practice will not always be successful but if it is made a constant aspiration the round can become deeply interesting and finally a source of inspiration and calm.
Fixed Responses to Changing Stimuli
The attempts for some time should be made in a relatively static environment as described above, just as the first attempts at swimming have to be made in calm water. But the next step is to practice in an environment that has limited changes. There are everyday examples in the office.
Take the case of simple copy typing. The eye is racing ahead to the new words, which have to be transmitted to the fingers. The fuzz of mental background is to be reduced to a minimum: expert typists will tell you that to become interested in what one is typing produces a mass of thoughts that check the speed. When side-thoughts have been reduced to a minimum the speed increases, and when the final side-thought “I am typing” dies away, the speeds are greater than consciously obtainable by that typist.
Note carefully that this is quite different from the so called automatic typing of a seasoned typist where the fingers do indeed seem to work almost by themselves, but the head is seething with thoughts of holidays, quarrels, hopes and fears.
This form of copy-typing or typing from a tape with a foot pedal is still controlled by the typist. But the next step is typing to dictation. The dictator may be more or less considerate, and the typist is not in control.
This leads into the next situation: the shorthand writer. In the early months or years of shorthand, the check comes in constructing the appropriate outline and then writing it, but at the higher levels – say 150 words a minute and over – the outlines of nearly all the words are familiar. The check comes when trying to respond instantly to each new word. Here again when side-thoughts are abandoned the speeds markedly increase: the pen seems to run of itself.
Creative Response to New Stimuli.
The situation appears in miniature in high-speed sports and games where there is a wide range of techniques. In the first years an opponent’s moves are countered more or less mechanically with some learned reaction but in the higher levels there is scope for creative responses. Here again note carefully that this is quite different from prepared tricks, which are not in fact creative. In the higher levels of Budo in Japan such as the real Judo without the artificial restraints imposed by the contest rules, there can be cultivation of instant creative response. This can only come about when the Judo-man gives up thoughts of how he intends to win and how he intends to counter the opponent’s special attacks (if he knows about them). The mind has to be as calm as a lake; the saying is that it is in still water that the moon is reflected.
Putting Life into Life.
From the above it can be seen that in what are thought of as chores or boring tasks we can search for and find a new form of inspiration. The word inspiration is often mixed up with ideas of excitement and enthusiasm, but the yogi inspiration arises and remains in calm.
In the Zen School there is much less emphasis on study, and corresponding more scope is given for what is called the daily life practice, of which the carrying out of small daily tasks is a central part. But the inner training through such tasks is very much the same. No part of life is left uninteresting and sterile. From outside these things may look very ordinary; but this is no ordinary ordinariness.
As a great Zen master said, the Zen man may live an ordinary life to outward appearances. What then is the difference between him and the ordinary man, also leading an ordinary life to all appearances? The difference is this: the ordinary man is not at peace in his ordinary life whereas the Zen man in his ordinariness is at peace, and is a full embodiment of the great life that sustains the universe.