Editor of The Zen Gateway website and practitioner of Zen Buddhism.
How to Pull Myself Together
Changing my own behaviour can be very hard. To do so requires harnessing the fickle energy of my desires into a unified force. How can this be done?
There is a parable the Buddha told about a man who tied six different animals together with ropes, a snake, a crocodile, a bird, a dog, a hyena and a monkey.
Each one wanted to return to his own habitat, the snake to the anthill, the crocodile to the river, the bird to the air, the dog to the village, the hyena to the charnel ground and the monkey to the forest.
Each pulled and pulled until exhausted and the strongest one then took over pulling them all in his preferred direction until he too became exhausted. The next strongest having recouped some of his energy then saw his advantage and begin to pull all in his preferred direction and so on. The Buddha went on to compare this man-made chimera with a monk whose practice of meditation is being pulled in all directions by the six senses (the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mental sense). Each one taking it in turn to carry away the heart to its preferred things.
This tendency to transform from one thing into another; and hence go in different directions is the crux of the Buddha’s parable given above.
All of us from time to time may have made resolutions to give something up, to take up a new activity or to mend our ways towards some perceived ‘healthier’ way of living. ‘I have been here before but this time I feel the time has come and now I ‘must’’. Thus the energy feels like it has finally pulled together in one direction. There is a sense that at this moment all of my powers, like well-trained horses tied to a chariot, are moving harmoniously towards the desired end. But how long does that feeling last? Here we have to shamefacedly recognise that the energy ‘as felt’ is not a good indicator of an actual state of affairs.
This is not to say that we humans are not capable of sustained effort towards an end; far from it. We would not have made it far as a species if, for example, our ancestors had given up after the first failed hunt or while planting grain when the weather turned rather nasty. The same is true also for the highest achievements in science, art, and even just going to work on a daily basis! But for us to do these things there has to be sufficient motivation. What we discover, from our failed resolutions, is that my thinking that something would be a good idea is not enough. To really be able to apply ourselves consistently means it must come from a deeper level than ‘my’ will alone.
Some people sense this from experience or intuitively and will say that they are waiting until they are in the ‘right frame of mind’, before beginning the new undertaking. It is a bit like waiting for the weather to change before setting out on a sea voyage. The unspoken assumption is that I am subject to the winds of my desire changing before I can successfully hope to make such a change. I remember at University I never really liked writing essays because I believed trying to be precise in my thinking, being detailed, did not come naturally to me. I much more preferred a broad brush approach to explanations rather than being pinned down to precise formulations which my essays (or rather my tutors), required. However, I did discover that if I left essays to the last minute then it was much easier to sit down and write the essay and that I was much more motivated to do so at that time. Here is that unspoken admission that by a sheer act of will I could not bring myself to sit down and write essays but by manoeuvring myself into certain situations it was possible to trigger the necessary power to be able to sit down and write. This means that in fact it is not ‘I’ who am in charge of raising energy but that for much of the time it is my desires that decide when and where things will happen. To be more precise, calling them ‘my’ desires is little more than my conceit, as those desires have ‘me’ and drive me where they will. They are the ones who can summon up great energy and drive me this way and that (as again so well illustrated in the Buddha’s parable), not ‘I’.
One time-honoured tradition for raising energy is some kind of ritual or ceremonial activity. Marie-Louise von Franz, a student of Carl Jung, once said that her gardener was rather subject to his moods. He might come in in low spirits and not be able to motivate himself. She would sit him down and tell him an uplifting story. By the end of it he was full of energy and raring to go.
When war breaks out, think about all the parades and propaganda that are used to move the public into the right frame of mind to go to war.
One exercise we can try is to take a piece of paper and make two lists: What supports making a resolution to change a behaviour, and what hinders it? This practice can help us realise that motivation comes from a deeper level of the heart and is made up of several causes that need conditions in the present to support them and create durability.
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