Right Action, Right Intent

buddhism focus harmony martial arts methods principle Zen

This example illustrates the difference between principles and methods. Most of our teachers will try to give us methods, because those are much easier to convey and teach; simply do as I do. However, the best teachers show us why things are done a certain way. Instead of simply telling us to do something, they explain the intended consequences of the actions and the principles that guide the use of certain methods.

In Zen, there is the concept of right action and right intent. You can sit in the meditation posture all day long and think about your breathing, but you will get nowhere if you do not do it with the right intentions and the right mindset. You must know why you do it (which in the case of Zen is for its own sake, with no reason behind the act).

Wax On, Wax Off

In martial arts, I have found that it is impossible to teach effective self-defense without explaining the principles that guide the choice of certain movements. Why do we use an elbow here instead of a palm heel? Why do we stand this way? Why do we keep our hands up near our face or down at our hips? Every position in martial arts has a principle that necessitates its existence, and nothing is wasted.

When the teacher explains to the student, “You must keep your right hand up to protect your face,” a seemingly arbitrary motion gains meaning, and the student learns why it is important to do it right. Furthermore, the student imbues his actions with the intended purpose; it would be possible to go through the motions without any meaning behind them. The result would be sloppy or weak movements that, while appearing correct, would not serve their intended purpose.

Despite this, many teachers do not always see the need to convey the principles behind what they are teaching. This information is either seen as too advanced, or they are simply lazy. Sometimes, however, the teacher is very good at getting the student to do the right thing but neglects to explain why they are doing it. Then, it is up to the student to discern the principles behind it.

Sometimes We Need to Help Our Teachers Teach Us

When I was learning Olympic weightlifting, my coach had a very sharp eye for technique and was very good at helping me get into the right positions and correcting my mistakes. He never really told me why certain things had to be done, however. My contribution to my own training was to constantly pester him with ideas and realizations: “Oh! So here we are trying to transfer the weight of the bar to the legs and not push with the arms! I get it!” Of course, to him this was obvious, so he’d just smile and nod. But knowing these things has enabled me to refine my technique without always having a coach present.

When I’ve taught Olympic weightlifting, I find that explaining the reasons for certain movements does actually help people learn the technique better. It is extremely easy to make movements look correct in weightlifting while still maintaining bad habits, but if you simply explain to people what they are trying to accomplish, they tend learn faster. Many of my clients expect to just learn methods, and never even ask me the why behind what I’m showing them.

Break Through the Surface to the Reasons Why

Asking why is probably what has enabled me to learn things with such depth. It is very easy to gain a surface, working knowledge of a field: simply copy what you see others doing, if you can. Be true, deeper knowledge comes from the ability to manipulate what you know in order to produce the results you want. Asking why is the only way to get there, to break through the methods to the principles that guide them.

Why do we work 9-5 jobs? Why do we value a college diploma? Are these things necessary? Why do we accept the traditional model of economic prosperity as the ideal, or only, model of happiness? Learn to question the assumptions of society on how you ought to live. Often, these methods of living have become separated from their original purpose, and we have become more concerned with following the prescribed path than caring where it is taking us.

A casual baker follows recipes, not knowing what the yeast is doing or how the flour affects the dough. A master baker understands these things. For him, there are no longer recipes, only flavors he seeks to create. With his knowledge of yeast, flour, and dough, he can achieve those flavors by his own methods, guided by the universal principles of breadmaking, which do not change from baker to baker.

Always seek to break through methods to principles, for otherwise, you will always simply be going through the motions, and you will never be able to take your knowledge out of the context in which you learned it.

Are there any areas of your life in which you do things because 'you have to' or because 'it's always been done that way'? Is there a better way to accomplish the same ends?

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