The ideal and the actual
One translation of the ancient Chinese poem Sandōkai says, “with the ideal comes the actual”. The poet’s name, Shih-t’ou Hsi-ch’ien, is translated as “He who hopes for improvement”. I can’t blame him. Maybe, before becoming a Tang dynasty Zen master, he was an over-achieving perfectionist just like many of us.
It is in the human DNA to keep striving; or if we do not strive, to judge ourselves negatively. She who strives and achieves is considered successful; she who does not is labelled lazy or unfortunate.
To take a small example, my last blog post was written months ago, in a digital world where the ideal is to post twice a week. I was waiting for a time when I’d have the time to write ‘properly’ – at length, with flashing inspiration and far-reaching research. Frozen by my own ambition, I achieved nothing.
My teacher is an erudite writer and lifelong student of the Zen tradition, and yet the advice of his that comes to my mind the most often, is also the most mundane: ‘Set yourself the task of doing one thing every day. Even if it’s only putting a nail in the wall to hang a picture’.
Think of someone you admire, who has achieved an impressive body of work. At any one time, were they doing anything other than having one thought? Or picking up a pen or an instrument? Saying a single word, or putting one foot in front of the other? They too built their lives around the mundane chores that keep us alive, by doing just one thing at a time. That person’s life is just like yours.
Ideals play their part, but we give them far too much credit. All you ever need to do is focus on the one thing you’re doing now.