I wanted to share with you all the intro and the first chapter of my forthcoming book "A little book on finding your Way: Zen and the Art of Doing stuff." I've been really enjoying writing it for the last 6 months or so. It is going to be a short book (hence the title) but I think it 'has legs'. So short book, but a long journey ahead of it! I hope you enjoy this except and perhaps it will whet your appetite for the whole thing when it's ready (should be in print by December this year). Thanks for reading this and joining me on the journey...
Introduction: The Way
We all want to be good at something. Let's face it, most of us who haven't had all the passion squeezed out of us want to be really good at something. It almost doesn't matter what the thing is – just to be that good, to be able to say “I'm World-class.” But how do we envision this goal? I'd say that in the western world we have a pretty limited idea of what achievement really means. It mostly seems to mean Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Taller, just plain MORE! I think there's another way...
It's a way that has been around in the West forever but has only been applied to certain disciplines (primarily the arts). It has been suggested by certain modern and progressive psychologies. But I think it has been best explored and expressed in the Far East where it has been inherent in some of their oldest philosophical approaches. What is that way? Good question.
It is The Way. It has it's roots in Taoism (an ancient Chinese religion and spiritual path) and found further expression in Japanese Zen Buddhism. 'Tao' (sometimes Dao) in Chinese or 'Do' in Japanese translates as 'Way.' So when I say it's The Way, that's what I mean. And this book is not just about doing stuff it's about Do-ing stuff: taking something you do and making it a Do (see how beautifully I've set up that pun? That's part of my Way, I learnt it from my Dad).
The Way is not about Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Taller or More. It is about someone expressing their essential nature. It is about blossoming into the fullness of your being – and not in an 'I'm the most beautiful blossom ever' kinda way – in a finding out who you are and living that kinda way. When you really do that, as the song says, nobody does it better.
This is not about converting you to some religion, making you shave your head, selling you a line of 'The Way'TM T-shirts, or selling your Soul to Santa. It could be described as a spiritual path but only in so much as it is a path and if you want to you can involve your spiritual self in the journey. That's all up to you. My personal experience is that by taking certain activities and bringing a special mindset to them I have learned about myself and found a deeper sense of who I really am. It's not any kind of objective truth (if such a thing exists) but it has brought me joy in the good times and peace in the tough times and that's good enough for me.
The Way is not really about the activities that help to cultivate it. The Way is your unique path in the world. When that's really written in your heart then you can experience all kinds of Ways and all kinds of people and they all help to feed you in your own Way. In the words of the Hagakure:
“It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything that is called a Way. Therefore it is inconsistent to hear something of the Way of Confucius or the Way of the Buddha, and say that this is the Way of the Samurai. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.”
Chapter 1: All Zen Masters are Geeks and Anoraks!
I think one of the reasons why we view mastery as we do in the West is because of school. In school it's not cool to be good at stuff unless it's mainstream. This will probably depend on the school but at my school, being good at football was cool. Sports were generally a cool thing to be good at but Football was top of the pile. Music could be cool to be good at... guitar was cool, oboe was not. As we got towards driving age, knowing a lot about cars was cool. Being academically strong was not cool, but particularly maths, the sciences and history were not cool. Religious Studies didn't even get on the radar. These are mostly examples from the boys side of the fence and from my school in particular but most of us develop a sixth sense about what's cool and what's not when we are at school and I'm sure you can fill in your own examples.
In this environment where only certain activities are safe to be enthusiastic about, is it any wonder that many of us loose our way? In the rarefied social environment of the playground or the sports field or the canteen you just didn't say “You know what? I love renaissance poetry!” If you did you were a geek. Likewise, it would have been a special kind of social suicide to say “This algebra stuff is brilliant, I could just play with numbers and letters like this all day!” If you did you were an anorak.
Most of us will have had relatively little safe space growing up to explore what really excited us. We have been socially educated to hide away any passions which don't fit the mould.
I think that to find our Way we have to love something. It's not always the case but I've often found that the things I fall in love with are things I have some natural talent for. That doesn't mean I find them easy – the challenge is part of what gets me really hooked long term – but when I first try it there's a zing of recognition like I've done it before and the process of learning is more like a remembering.
I never really learnt to love football, but it wouldn't surprise me if many of my school friends did. They learnt to love it but I suspect only a handful loved it straight off. In my heart there were other things I loved straight away, and some of them have taken years to discover. Most of the things I love would have definitely placed me in the Geek camp at school. Karate for instance, but not the high kicking kind of cool 'Karate Kid' Karate, no.... A rare form of old Okinawan Karate that is compact and probably not that impressive to watch. Another example would be a love of world religions and philosophies. Definitely not cool. My most recent discovery is 'Card Scaling'. “What?!” I hear you cry. It is the skill of throwing playing cards with enough power to stick in a water-melon or fly for hundreds of feet. Throwing playing cards like a ninja! Sound kinda geeky? Fair enough, but I love it.
Where in the East people who obsessively train in obscure disciplines are given titles of respect, in the West they are called Geeks and Anoraks. Take a Zen master as an example. He (or she) spends years sitting still. Their other key activity is contemplating ancient pieces of short and confusing poetry. It sounds like a geek and smells like a geek, it's a geek! Ancient poetry that doesn't have any immediate or obvious meaning?! What an anorak!
If you want to master something, if you want to find a Way that will nourish you and help you grow it's got to be something that lives in your heart; and that means that by the world's standards it might not be cool.
There are Ways already defined and laid out for you to pick up: the martial arts; zen flower arranging; calligraphy; brush painting; pottery; carving; the Japanese tea ceremony. That's not what this book is about. What I'm looking to do here is set out some principles so that you can take any activity and turn it into a Way. Hell, if the Samurai and monks of ancient Japan could turn making the tea into a Zen art then why shouldn't we do the same with anything? Cake baking, accountancy, wine tasting is virtually there already, the application of make-up, dog walking, throwing stones into the sea – anything!
If you're going to undertake this task and find a Way for yourself you'd better get in touch with your inner geek. Revere the anorak in your heart. These are the parts of you that are capable of completely investing themselves in the deep deep detail of their activities no matter what anyone else thinks. And remember that all Zen masters are Geeks and Anoraks.
Some of you who have an altruistic outlook and want to take care of others or even change the world may be wondering if this isn't all a bit self serving. Isn't it a bit selfish to dig deep into myself and find what I like to do and really invest time in it regardless of whether it is an activity which serves others? I would say no. If you don't take care of the vessel doing the work (that's you) then the work won't get done. One of my favourite quotes at the moment is this one from Howard Thurman:
“Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
 Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Translated by William Scott Wilson