Is everything, including what you call "voluntary action", actually spontaneous?
Many people say "I am controlled by my ego. Try as I might, I can't NOT be controlled by it.
Many people say "I want to be different"; they say that they are helpless before ego and fear- they want very much to change, to be different, to be better- but what if the answer to this problem lies not in "making a change", but in understanding something different about the nature of yourself, and all things, and how what you call "ego" relates to deeper reality?
What if "decisions" and "feelings" aren't what you are in control of? What if what YOU have control of is only how you understand yourself and all the world- and what if that proper understanding transforms you totally?
Is what you call "voluntary action" really
voluntary? Are you really failing to make the proper decisions, and being dominated by ego or fear? Or is none of that the case? What if your only failing is in how you are perceiving yourself and the world?
NOTE: READ THIS VERY CAREFULLY, and READ IT MORE THAN ONCE.
CONCERNING THE SPONTANEITY OF ALL THINGS:
"Social conditioning fosters the identification of the
mind with a fixed idea of 'itself' as the means of
self-control, and as a result, man thinks himself "I"-
Thereupon the mental center of gravity shifts from the
spontaneous or original mind to the ego image. Once
this has happened, the very center of our psychic life
is identified with the self-controlling mechanism. It
then becomes almost impossible to show how "I" can let
go of "Myself", for "I" am precisely my habitual
effort to hold on to "myself".
I find myself totally incapable of any mental action
which is not intentional, affected, and insincere.
Therefore, anything I do to "give myself up", to let
go, will be a disguised form of the habitual effort to
I cannot be intentionally unintentional or purposely
spontaneous. As soon as it becomes important for me to
be spontaneous, (to overcome ego, to see beyond myself)
the intention to do so is strengthened; I cannot get
rid of it, and yet, it is the one thing that stands in
the way of its own fulfillment.
It is as if someone had given me some medicine with
the warning that it will not work if I think of a
monkey while taking it.
While I am remembering to forget the monkey, I am in a
"double-bind" situation where "to do" is "not to do"
and vice versa. "Yes" implies "no", and "go" implies
At this point, Zen comes to me and asks: "If you
cannot help remembering the monkey, are you doing it
In other words, do I have an intention for being
intentional, a purpose for being purposive?
Suddenly I realize that my very intending is
spontaneous, or that my controlling self- the ego-
arises from my uncontrolled or natural self.
At this moment, all the machinations of the ego come
to nought; it is annihilated in its own trap.
I see that it is actually impossible not to be
spontaneous. For what I cannot help doing, I am doing
spontaneously, but if I am at the same time trying to
control it, I interpret it as "compulsion".
As a Zen master said, "Nothing is left to you at this
moment but to have a good laugh."
In this moment the whole quality of consciousness is
changed, and I feel myself in a new world in which,
however, it is obvious that I have always been living.
As soon as I recognize that my voluntary and
purposeful action happens spontaneously "by itself",
just like breathing, hearing, and feeling, I am not
longer caught in the contradiction of trying to be
There is no real contradiction, since "trying" IS
Seeing this, the compulsive, blocked, and "tied-up"
feeling vanishes. It is just as if I had been absorbed
in a tug-of-war between my two hands, and forgotten
that they were both mine.
No block to spontaneity remains when the trying is
seen to be needless. As we saw, the discovery that
both the "voluntary" and the "involuntary" apects of
the mind are alike spontaneous makes an immediate end
to the fixed dualism of the mind and the world, the
knower and the known.
The new world in which I find myself has an extraordinary
transparency or freedom from barriers, making it seem
that I have somehow become the empty space in which
everything is happening.
Here, then, is the point of the oft-repeated assertion
that "all beings are enlightened from the very beginning,"
that "all dualism is falsely imagined," that "the
ordinary mind is the Tao", and that there is therefore
no meaning in trying to get in accord with it. In the
words of the Cheng-tao Ke:
"Like the empty sky it has no boundaries,
Yet it is right in this place, ever profound and
When you seek to know it, you cannot see it.
You cannot take hold of it,
But you cannot lose it.
In not being able to get it, you get it.
When you are silent, it speaks:
When you speak, it is silent.
The great gate is wide open to bestow alms,
And no crowd is blocking the way."
It was through seeing this that, in the moment of his
Satori, Hakuin cried out "How wondrous! How wondrous!
There is no birth-and-death from which one has to
escape, nor is there any supreme knowledge after which
one has to strive!"
Or, in the words of Hsiang Yen:
"At one stroke I forgot all my knowledge!
There's no use for artificial discipline.
For, move as I will, I manifest the Ancient Way."
Paradoxically, nothing is more artificial than the
notion of artificiality. Try as one may, it is as
impossible to go against the spontaneous Tao, the Way
of All Things,
as it is to live in some other time
than "now", or be in some other place than "here".
-Alan Watts: The Way of Zen
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