People Who Accomplish Things
Robert Benchley famously quipped “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t.”
Many variations on our concepts of self/other are as wryly funny as they are sharply accurate when they pin down the ways we sort our world. For the moment, I’m taking my cue from Mark Twain, who offered this one: “There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.”
Why can’t we accomplish the things we want to accomplish? I’m not talking about a genie in a bottle or to do lists. I mean getting down to what we’re already supposedly doing: the stuff to which we’re sort of paying attention, and sort of really not. It moves around on the desk or in the garage, it keeps us awake at night, nagging us to guilt, anxiety or depression; it hangs around half begun, out of gas, getting dustier and less interesting to us by the day.
It may come as a surprise to hear that yoga is all about this question, especially surprising if you think of meditation as sitting still or somehow being above all that. Sri Swami Satchidananda, in his commentary on the Yoga Sutra, is deliciously mischievous on this point.
“If sitting like a statue is what you call samadhi,” he writes, “all the rocks in the garden must be in deep samadhi.”
Rather, he teaches, a yogi is involved. “You will be useful; you will be active — more active than other people.”
There are two kinds of enlightened people then, those who can turn their intentions into reality, and those who like the feeling of lighting candles. The third chapter of the yoga sutra, which is called vibhuti, or accomplishment, is an instruction manual for that first, less crowded group.
When it comes to taking action, there are several universal human tendencies that can keep us locked in the cage of thinking about a beautiful thing while it hangs out of reach. One of these tendencies is nonchalance, and another related one is overstimulation. In yoga these two states are referred to as
tamas and rajas, or inertia and excitability
We recognize nonchalance by the way we say “whatever” in answer to a question. (Those clever French call it “ennui” – an exceedingly concise word that comes from the Latin phrase mihi in odio est -”it is hateful to me”.) However, we may not recognize nonchalance or inertia when it shows up as doing what “they” tell us to do, punching the clock, taking our pills, and in general “doing our best.”
We know overstimulation when it shows up as wall-to-wall traffic, industrial or urban noise, or a troublesome series of cellphone ringtones and emails. Overstimulation or excitability is also there in buzzing enthusiasm that spends itself in talking or doing errands, or in the display of good intentions that keep us incontestably, busily working even though we’re not getting to what we say matters.
Patanjali’s chapter on vibhuti describes power as the capacity to make the things we see as necessary really happen. Everything that compromises our intelligence, our luminosity or clarity, in the same moment compromises our ability to make things happen.
Accomplishment rests on giving up everything that isn’t focus
everything that compromises us. Practice puts us in a position to see what isn’t focus, to see the point where wanting to do something and doing something part paths.
Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais was one of the earliest scientists to appreciate the “unity of psyche and soma as the ground of our living.”* As a result of his study of learning and the nervous system, he maintained that the ability to engage, disengage, or reverse any activity, even repeatedly, without being troubled by doing so was an important potential of human development.
Feldenkrais called this development “maturity,” and considered it “possible only when there is fine control of excitation and inhibition and a normal ebb and flow between the parasympathetic and sympathetic.”
What he seems to be saying is we’re fully ourselves when we’re not at the mercy of nonchalance or overstimulation, not occupied with fight or flight, calculation or manipulation: we’re flowing with what’s going on at the moment. Mark Reese, Feldenkrais’ biographer observed this “echoes Eastern practices like Tantra.”
Harvard University’s Dr. Joshua Greene published a fascinating paper this summer, “Patterns of neural activity associated with honest and dishonest moral decisions.” He and fellow scientists
designed a study in which participants were given the opportunity to cheat
if they chose to and make money at it without anybody knowing. Using control groups and statistical analysis, Greene distinguished “dishonest” participants by the high number of cash reward answers they gave. With functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) the researchers were able to observe what went on in the brains of people who were cheating, comparing this with the activity in the brains of a group who weren’t.
What Greene and his team found supports Feldenkrais’ “normal ebb and flow between the parasympathetic and sympathetic” as well as Patanjali’s description of vibhuti. In the neural activity of honest people, there was a simple pattern of direct response. However, in the brains of those Greene observed who were dishonest, there was extra activity in the brain not only when they were cheating, but even at the moments when they were answering honestly.
Greene’s work provides a view of ourselves we can all recognize and understand. The fMRIs display the activity of our constant entanglement with an internal version of things we’re justifying and modifying: the distraction and patterning Patanjali says yoga is designed to end.
Like circuitous decisions about when to tell the truth, the stuff on the desk, the stuff in the garage, and the stuff we believe are not separate issues from what we decide is worth doing with our lives – it is our lives. Once we decide we’re going to focus, not just try to focus, but focus without accepting any other result but focussing, we’re going to be dealing with stuff we’ve been really trying to avoid. Practice is a tool to train our attention and break down our faith in the angles we play and how we weigh the odds.
The most difficult thing about dealing with lack of focus is seeing it for what it is in the first place. Lack of focus is so subtly about this moment and so casually about the one after it.
It’s easy to find yourself thinking, how can this moment be the one that matters?
Alcoholics talk about the difference between deciding to stop drinking while continuing to experience the sensation of wanting to drink, and the idea that a medication will make the desire to drink go away. If you rely on the second, I’ve been told, you don’t stand a chance. Being present is accepting how things really are. That’s not done in the big picture, it’s done in this moment, just as Patanjali says, in discerning and giving up attachment to whatever this moment is not.
According to Swami Satchidanada, “One who has achieved this may look similar to anyone else. But the burnt nature of his or her mental seeds is the difference between ordinary people and the jivanmuktas (liberated beings). They also eat, sleep and do everything like everybody else.”
Liberated beings “may be doing anything,” he tells us, like Feldenkrais’ mature adults, “but they are not affected by what they do.” Practice that imagines another freedom, or freedom in another world misses the point. There are “living liberated people,” he says and we should be among them acting in this world. “Liberation is not something you experience when you die. While living, you should be liberated.”
Sober people talk about the only real kind of focus: the chosen and deliberate kind. They describe very well how it happens: you give it not just a lot of energy, but all the energy you’ve got, leaving none for the calculation of what it will take, or how much you can get away with holding back. You go around finding nonsense to cut out, old business to complete and connections to make because it’s going to take more energy to be free than it did to try to be free, and you’ve decided to make it happen.
Quoted and Cited
* tamas and rajas translated as inertia and excitability from Dr. Vasant Lad, Textbook of Ayurveda: Fundamental Principles, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2002.
Moshe Feldenkrais, Body and Mature Behavior: A Study of Anxiety, Sex, Gravitation, & Learning. Berkeley California, 1949, and 2005.
Dr. Joshua Greene, et.al.,Patterns of neural activity associated with honest and dishonest moral decisions.
12506 –12511 PNAS July 28, 2009 vol. 106 no. 30
Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patajali Translation and Commentary. Yogaville, Virginia, 1978, and 2003.