Do-It-Yourself Living

beginner's mind do it yourself self-actualization shunryu suzuki Zen

Looking for Answers Outside Ourselves

This concept, that our goals are already within us, that we already have everything we need to achieve our greatest potential, challenges the traditional notion of success in our society. The fitness industry tells us that we need to buy a new machine or tool to get fit, or get a gym membership. The legitimacy of self-teaching has been ruthlessly undermined by our institutions of higher learning, who would like to establish a monopoly on what kinds of education are considered viable. There is an industry for every conceivable human endeavor, which make money by telling you that you cannot pursue your dreams or achieve your goals without their products (or at least it will take you forever). The most basic sport of all, running, has one of the largest money-making industries built up around it, selling shoes, GPS's, heart-rate monitors, ID tags, etc.

There is a mindset in a lot of people that the answers to their problems are external to them. This exempts people from responsibility for their own happiness. How horrible would it be to realize that the only thing keeping you from happiness is yourself? Doesn't that imply some sort of sadistic masochism? Much safer to assume it is something else. You see this a lot in the area of jobs: people who are dissatisfied with their jobs blame the job situation and spend a lot of time jumping from one occupation to another. Once they find a new job, they think it is much better than the last, but the soon find themselves with the same complaints. I realized that this was a problem I had: no matter what I was doing, I didn't like being told what to do. So I jumped around looking for a job that gave me a ton of freedom, but all jobs (indeed all of life) requires us to live up to our obligations and deadlines. I traded one kind of boss for another kind. When I realized that the problem was my own problem with listening to authority, it made work a lot easier, since I knew where the problem was and how to fix it.

This is not to say that all jobs are created equal. Some jobs really are horrible wastes of your time and spirit. There is such a thing as a dream job, but anything you do will require you to deal with some of your frustrations. It helps to realize that what seems infinitly unbearable to you may be the best part of work for someone else. This fact emphasizes that complaints really do originate in the complainer.

Related to job satisfaction is the belief that material happiness is external to us. Beyond a certain minimum of goods necessary for life, having more stuff will not solve our problems. People's lifestyles expand to consume their growing incomes. Instead of looking at how you don't make enough money (an external solution you have little control over), look at how you can reduce your expenses and alter your lifestyle choices (an internal solution).

The trend of looking for external answers also comes into play when we determine how we live. A good example is morality. Most people derive their morality from external sources, usually a religious or philosophical tradition. What values you embody is a huge component of your character, so to leave it up to someone else (who doesn't know you or your life circumstances) is dubious at best. Historically, men and women who were admired for their character and values were also often controversial characters, because their personal value systems did not mesh well with the larger context of their times. There was always some aspect of their character that made some group uncomfortable. Instead of hiding that, they fully embraced and lived up to their personal value systems. They angered some people, but overall, they were respected and admired for standing up for their beliefs. Since I'm reading a book on ancient Rome, I'll refer to a character from it as an example. Gaius Marius was one of the greatest generals of the Republic, greatly admired by his friends and enemies alike. Even those who opposed his political aims were impressed by his strict adherence to his own virtues, which were not those of the rest of the political elite. His was a morality that grew out of his own experience in life, and whether or not it was classically Roman (it was not), the fact that he never questioned himself and had total faith in his beliefs meant that he was able to succeed where others failed. He is a good example of a man whose life was built according to his own sense of what was right and what he was capable of. He never let anyone else determine his abilities or tell him what he could and could not do.

Looking Within

Nobody is perfect, and nobody knows everything about anything, but that doesn't mean the knowledge we do acquire through experience is not viable. An important lesson to learn is to trust your own experiences and conclusions in life, with the understanding that they will change as you gain a deeper knowledge. This approach requires a willingness to get your hands dirty, however, and to actually go out and try things for yourself. The best way to gain a skill is to start doing it. If you want to hike, don't read about it, just go an start walking into the woods.

But what about all the potential dangers of hiking? Isn't it better to be prepared by reading the sage advice of an expert? Possibly. You might get a good idea of a packing list. But with some consideration, you'd probably come up with a decent list on your own, knowing your own needs and abilities. I need food, shelter, and warmth, and since I'm intending to go somewhere, it will help to know how to do that. Thus, I have most of a packing list: food, tent, sleeping bag, map, compass.

The key is the ability to know yourself. For if you are going to derive lessons from your own experiences, you must be attentive enough to understand your own experiences and yourself.

Building experience-based knowledge also requires a great deal of humility and acceptance. You have to understand that your knowledge is limited to what you have actually experienced. I had done a lot of backpacking in the Appalachians before I signed up for a trip in the Colorado Rockies, and heading out, I was a bit arrogant, making recommendation to the guides and feeling very sure of myself. Once we passed 10,000 feet however, I had my first taste of altitude sickness and I learned pretty quick that my experience in the Appalachians did not give me much I could take out West. I quickly accepted that I'd be learning everything from scratch (except basics like how to pack my backpack). It is important not to jump to conclusions.

This requires a great deal of patience and testing. Any knowledge you build from personal experience will necessarily be somewhat limited based on the fact that one person cannot do everything, but it will also be of a much higher quality than knowledge gained from secondary sources of experience.

Making it Your Own

“In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few” - Shunryu Suzuki

The last thing I wanted to discuss in relation to personal knowledge is the phenomenon of making something your own. For example, when you start Karate, you follow your teacher's instructions, and every White Belt does everything the same. There is no room for creativity as you learn the nuances of the system. But as you become more and more advanced, instead of cleaving more closely to a uniform system, you actually start to develop your own style. Most truly great Karate practitioners end up developing a completely new system. Ironically, as you get better at something, you actually do it less and less like everyone else who also does that thing. This leads to the conclusion that every practice we undertake is necessarily unique, less so as beginners, but unique nonetheless.

So be willing to be different and to draw your own conclusions from what you experience. What you think is right for you probably is, but you have to approach these things with an honest, beginner's mind. Pay attention! Adults have a tendency to refuse to acknowledge truths that go against what they've been doing for years because they have become set in their ways and they do not want to admit that they should make a change. Children, on the other hand, see an undesirable result and change their ways because they haven't become attached to the habit.

Finding the balance between humility and trust in your experience is a long and complicated journey. I have come to realize that the rewards are far more fulfilling than simply accepting other experts' notions of what is good or appropriate. Take ownership of your beliefs, your actions, your habits, and your life by choosing the elements that make them up.

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