‘It seems to be human nature to take anything that works (ceremony for example) and then make it solid and rigid. It’s when we put ego and solidity and rigidity around it that we make a problem.’
Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen teacher
If you would like to live as a monk in Thailand, you will be required to follow 227 precepts or rules. Some of these are fairly obvious, such as not committing murder, stealing, or slandering your fellow monks. Others, such as the injunction not to carry wool with oneself for more than three walking days, are a little more obscure. To live as a monk is to choose a highly disciplined life, one which is designed to create the right conditions for spiritual development. We may regard some of those rules with a certain bemusement, or even feel that rules are not for us – we should be free spirits, able to act in whatever way feels right to us. Yet our lives are also bound by countless rules, probably more than 227, mostly designed to help us live in peace with others. Even something as simple as driving to the shops to get some milk requires us to follow road rules, such as stopping at a red light, as well as the driving conventions of our culture, which will determine how generous we are when it comes to giving way, how respectful we are of bikes on the road, and so on. There are rules about how to behave in a supermarket queue, what we can wear at work, what we are allowed to say and when, how late we can keep the whole neighbourhood awake with our party, whether we’re allowed to check Facebook at work, and countless others.
Then there are the disciplines we set for ourselves to keep us healthy and happy – that early morning run in drizzling rain, saying no to the extra glass of wine, meditating regularly regardless of whether we feel like it. Just as religious groups work out over time which practices and ceremonies are helpful, so we too might figure out for ourselves that yes, regular exercise is important to me, I will regret getting drunk, my day goes much better when I’ve made the time to meditate in the morning. Some form of discipline seems to be essential for us to lead a ‘good’ life. Groups of people need structures and guidelines if they are to work well and efficiently together. Yet often, within a generation or two, these guidelines can become ends in themselves – rigid rules everyone has to obey, or else! There is a Zen saying which illustrates this:
‘Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.’
Our rules are like fingers pointing at the moon – they are helpful, but only if we don’t forget they are simply there to point us in the right direction.
Our lives are a constant balancing act between becoming too rigid on one hand, and on the other hand lacking the self-discipline to choose those actions which will benefit us. As we grow and change, the rules which served us well two years ago may no longer be appropriate now. It’s not always easy to get the balancing act right. If I wake up with a sore throat, is a morning run in pouring rain a good idea? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. Mindfulness can help us tune more deeply into our present-moment experience, and discern what is really going on – is my desire to sleep in just laziness, or do I need to be flexible with my exercise routine this morning? Hopefully, as we keep tuning in, over time we will have a clearer sense of when flexibility or discipline may be needed.
Weekly practice idea:
What are the rules you live by? Do you think you generally have a tendency to be too rigid, or not disciplined enough? Perhaps you are very disciplined at work, for example, but not so good when it comes to self-care. Stop and pause from time to time, and ask yourself – is my current action about healthy discipline, rigid dogma, or a bit too laissez-faire?