Simplicity & the Pure Response

So often in our lives we encounter challenges that when met with the simplicity of the pure response can be effectively transmuted so that we generate less complexity, less stress, and ultimately less suffering. And yet, the simplest thing is not always the easiest thing to do. – Donna Farhi

“Tis a gift to be simple,
Tis a gift to be free,
Tis a gift to come round where we ought to be . . . “

~ Old Shaker Song.

I have been reflecting deeply on the beauty of simplicity and the nature of what I’ll call a “pure response”.  So often in our lives we encounter challenges that when met with the simplicity of the pure response can be effectively transmuted so that we generate less complexity, less stress, and ultimately less suffering.  And yet, the simplest thing is not always the easiest thing to do.   Before we delve deeper into the idea of the pure response let me tell a story that may help to illustrate this concept.

When I first moved to my property in North Canterbury, every day seemed to upturn some deficiency in my city girl education.  Faced with a very long drive way set on a rather steep incline and large tracts of lawn around the house, I had to admit that the only way to prevent my property from becoming the movie set for a sequel to Out of Africa would be to buy a ride-on mower.  But ride-on mowers are expensive and I had strong judgments about these noisy contraptions, which in my mind are a contributing factor to rural obesity (I have never seen a fat person pushing a lawn mower . . .), air pollution and to the degradation of true country character.  So for over a year I stubbornly pushed, sweated and swore my way around the lawns, hour-after-hour pushing a Cyclone mower, which is a little gem of a mower nigh wider than my hips.  Or as the man in the shop who sold me the Cyclone summed it up ” it is the only mower small enough for someone like you.”  It was a losing battle.  So much grass, so little time.  So with some reservation I became the owner of a John Deere ride-on mower tractor.

The dealer, who had arranged to give a demonstration of the wonders of the John Deere mower, arrived in a flourish and proceeded to deftly maneuver over my lawns in a way that inspired confidence in the ease of the process.  This he followed with handy advice about pushing in widgets, attaching catchers and giving oil filter changes, all delivered at such breakneck speed that smoke began to build up inside my ears.  And before I had a chance to check on the exact location of said widgets and gadgets, I was standing in a puff of exhaust as his delivery truck high-tailed it up the drive.

I should like to say, dear reader, that I approached the task of learning the inner workings of my John Deere with patience and skillful mindfulness.  Instead, I became adept at the phrase, “You piece of shit” which I used as a kind of verbal panacea in response to clogged gathering tubes, dislodged cam belts, and the simple stalling, cough, cough of the engine.  To say that I was swearing as bad as a truck driver is to impugn on the reputation of truck drivers worldwide.  First I blamed the salesman for deception, deceit, and a lack of common decency in not giving me a more thorough seminar.  Then I blamed the John Deere for all its perceived deficiencies.  And throughout I prayed that the neighbours, who are “real” farmers were not within ear shot, or eyes glance of my antics on the mower, which on my first attempts left my lawn looking like a naval cadet with a bad buzz-cut.

I should like to report that I recovered quickly from my foul mood around the mower.  But no, I continued with my limited linguistic tirades, occasionally giving the catcher device a swift kick to teach it a lesson.  Very slowly I began to recover from what I now recognize as an understandable intimidation of this new technology.  And then I had a revelation.  Perhaps I should focus my energy on learning how I could use my John Deere with ease.  What a novel idea indeed!  I came to see that if I were observant, that the gathering tubes did not clog out of spite.  If the grass was too wet, or too long, or both, this could cause the catcher tubes to clog and with a little careful timing to ensure that the lawn was neither too long or wet I could cut and collect the clippings with ease.  The gathering tubes also clogged over dense patches of lawn, but this could be avoided by going a little slower over these areas so that too much grass did not overwhelm the diameter of the tubes.  I discovered that the catcher device would clog if the grass catcher baskets were over full and therefore backing up cut grass through the mechanism.  By emptying the baskets more often, I could avoid having to take the whole catcher device apart yet again.  The cam belt did not dislodge from its groove out of happenstance but when the cutting blades were disengaged on uneven ground.  In short, the universe was not conspiring against me to make mowing my lawns a penance.  And the John Deere mower was not to be blamed for being exactly what it was . . . a lower league model designed for small farms and farmers on even smaller budgets.  The farrier would tell me later that the next model up, for serious homesteaders was a whacking $20,000, which might have been more aptly named the John Dearest.  No, neither the dealer, or the John Deere, or the grass, or the weather, were to blame.

So what does my experience with my John Deer mower have to do with simplicity and the pure response?  First, it has taught me that life becomes a great deal simpler when I focus my energy on solving problems.  Focusing on solving a problem must be preceded by a decision that we actually want a solution.  Secondly, I can’t make that choice until I am really seeing clearly, which involves fully accepting what is in front of me.  Without prejudice, without conditioning, without wishing for something different.  Seeing clearly involves dropping my set ideas about who I am and whether I am a “technical person” (who can therefore see technical things) or a “non-technical person” (who most definitely can not see technical things).  And to my great astonishment, when I could accept my modest mower for what it is and isn’t, and when I dropped my fused identity as a person who is so non-technical she once broke a Venetian blind trying to open it, I began to understand the whys and wherefores of the inner workings of the John Deere.  And I began to enjoy mowing the lawns and actually taking pride in avoiding clogged catching devices and derailed cam belts, because I was paying enough attention to prevent these complications from occurring.  And for a “non-technical” person such as myself, or former self, I should more accurately say, it has been a revelation that I am beginning to see and understand all kinds of devices, which previously would have had me running to the phone to call in an expensive expert.

“And this, my friends, is what I mean by the simplicity of the pure response: seeing something just for what it is and then basing our actions on the simplest clearest response.”

And yet this simplest response is rarely our first response.  For over two weeks now I have cringed at a leaking hose connection.  As I have cringed, there are all kinds of thoughts about how inconvenient it is to be dripping and leaking, and then an irritation sets in about undoing and redoing the metal tap connector.  And then when it still leaks I can feel anger percolating.  Yet, this morning, I was feeling very calm and I noticed it dripping again, and in a most curious child-like way slowly undid the parts and low and behold if there wasn’t a broken washer.  And there in the bottom of my tool kit was a spare washer, and in minutes, with a little plumbing tape (having observed the plumber fix small leaks) I felt so ineffably pleased and content at having found a solution.

Looking deeper, I observe that my violent intent towards objects (plant, mineral or animal) has everything to do with some unresolved root anger just waiting for an excuse to be expressed.  I notice that this anger can flare when things don’t go my way, when people don’t act as I expect them to, and when I am disappointed in the outcome of an event.  The strength of a feeling, whether it be frustration, irritation, impatience or agitation 99% of the time serves to obscure a clear perception of what is actually happening and more important, what response might bring the best possible outcome?  Because when we don’t see clearly and choose the right response life seems to get very complicated and very stressful, very quickly.

“These observations have helped me to see the how deeply entrenched the human animal can be in choosing complexity and difficulty over simplicity.”

I have a friend who has had life-long issues with food, eating, digestion, body image, and nourishment.  She once spent over an hour telling me about the possible sources of these issues from her childhood, and yet when I went to visit her home my most basic observation was that her kitchen had not one good cooking pot or knife.   I truly feel sympathetic to how distressing and potentially difficult an eating disorder can be, and yet suggesting she buy a good set of cooking pots seemed a more practical suggestion than seeing yet another therapist.  Years later, my friend would relate with growing anxiety about her fears that there was something terribly wrong with her digestion and that she was afraid to see a doctor, such were her fears of the possible diagnosis.  And yet despite my sharing what I had learned through my own bout of irritable bowel syndrome, she continued to do just about everything one can do to make her condition worse; eating late, eating too little and then too much, eating raw and hard-to-digest foods.

“It is at this junction, whether observing another or observing ourselves that we need to ask:  “What is my investment in this suffering?  What is the secondary gain to be had from choosing complexity over simplicity?”  When we ask these questions and really face up to ourselves we may be surprised to discover that on some level we are being dishonest with ourselves because we are not actively choosing obvious solutions but actively avoiding obvious solutions.”

I see this dynamic play itself out during residential retreats and trainings where people who have been accustomed to living on their own have to learn to live communally.  One of the most common situations that arise during these residential events is the seeming inability to communicate even about the smallest conflict.  An adjacent retreatant may be slamming doors or using a communal shower late at night, and thus disturbing the sleep of others.  Instead of choosing the most direct solution: a calm, quietly spoken statement about what is happening and why it is distressing and the outcome the person would like, retreatants will go to resident assistants, and resident assistants will come to me, and as a result there will now be a community meeting which will probably waste a great deal of time.  It is extraordinary how quickly the matter of closing a door can escalate into an irate, self-righteous retreatant fully expecting that someone else should solve this problem for them.  And even more extraordinary, on the rare occasion when these direct communications do take place, how the poor person wasn’t even aware they were closing a door too loudly or having a shower too late, and they are horrified they caused someone discomfort, and of course, they will try not to do it again. End of story.  How often do we tell a story to eighty people over an eight-year period about something someone has done to us, but neglect to speak to the one person to whom this might make a difference?

“So when we don’t seek simple closure, or choose a response that might put an end to our story, we might ask, what other story do I want to hear right now?  What other story do I really want to tell?”

During a recent intensive I asked my students how best to cultivate prana.  There were many interesting suggestions, and I suspect people were a bit disappointed by my answer.  I suggested that everyone attempt eating three healthy meals a day at regular intervals and that they go to bed at the same time and get up in the morning at the same time.  Just consider what this simple suggestion might mean for you.  For me it means that I cannot spend too long in the office because I need to be eating dinner by six.  It means that I cannot read ad infinitum when I am tired, because I need to be asleep before ten.  And out of this very simple regimen, comes a steady stream of prana and a feeling of freshness upon awakening.  It might be more interesting to take a fistful of expensive supplements and search out the latest concentrated super foods, or to do complex exercises, and go to psychic healers to cure obscure illnesses, but I rather think most of us would find it even more challenging to do the simplest most effective thing. And when we don’t do the simplest thing, perhaps there is a deeper fixation, a deeper root anxiety that is driving our behaviour towards complexity and towards the continuation of our suffering.

“Suffering is not inevitability. It is a choice.”

We see the manifestation of this unnecessary complexity in almost every dimension of our society.  From the epidemic of obesity and its concomitant ills heart disease, cancer and diabetes to the battlefields of countries at war with one another.  For those of us who are Yoga teachers, we encounter it in the person who has had lifelong debilitating back pain, who when offered a possible solution in the form of a 30 minute self-care regimen looks at us as if we have just passed them a life sentence. Somehow 30 minutes of Yoga practice takes up far too much time, when the whole day could be spent instead in pain, frustration and fatigue. So now, I don’t accept anyone into a back care class, or for a private lesson who is not willing to do at least some self-practice because when someone says they don’t have time to do a little practice what they are really saying is that solving their problem is not a priority.

When now famous heart disease researcher and doctor Dean Ornish was seeking funding for his Yoga program, which consisted of a low-fat diet, exercise, yoga, meditation and regular group support meetings, one of the strongest criticisms of his potential study was that it was too extreme to expect people to make such radical life changes.  I remember a lecture he gave to an audience of Yoga conference attendees where he declared in tones on incredulity that “he guessed they thought breaking open someone’s sternum and doing a quadruple bypass would be less extreme than a radical change of lifestyle.”  As it turned out, his study became famous throughout the world for being one of the first to show the actual reversal of heart disease.  Yet, we know that people have to be ready to make changes.

Many of us may be forming resolutions and intentions.  I am eager to explore how to cultivate simplicity in other dimensions of my life and what may come through clear perception and an unadulterated response to life’s challenges.

May you enjoy all of life’s simple pleasures.

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