Just Avoid Picking And Choosing

A coaching client of mine, a successful entrepreneur and scientist, once showed me his happiness assessment. Every day he ranked on a scale from 1 to 10 how he was performing on a variety of areas: work, relationship, spiritual practice, hobbies, exercise, and a few others. He would then calculate an average of these numbers to determine his daily overall happiness quotient. He showed me a chart he kept, tracking the daily rises and falls of this measure. It looked much like the Dow Jones stock market index, with its various trends up and down, seesawing between deep valleys and steep climbs.

I admired his effort to pay attention and measure his level of happiness. This can be a useful self-awareness tool. He used this tool to determine which parts of his life needed more focus and attention. You, too, could use this approach to provide a quick, daily snapshot.

But I was concerned that he was being aggressively judgmental and hard on himself. His numbers were obviously subjective; after all, he was his own judge, and a harsh one. I suggested that he also keep another version of his happiness index. For this version, I asked that, every day, he rate himself a perfect 10 in every category of his life: work, relationship, spiritual practice, hobbies, exercise. On this second chart no improvement is necessary, or even possible. It represents complete and utter acceptance of one’s life right now, in this moment. Complete appreciation, satisfaction with what is.

I hoped, by keeping both charts, he could practice fighting for change and complete acceptance. And that each might help inform the other. Too much driving change, especially when measured solely by judgment and criticism, can lead to a state of constant striving and result in emotional burnout. Too much acceptance can lead to passivity. The goal is not to find a middle spot but to be adept at both — fighting for change and accepting what is.

Zen teacher Joshu is often regarded as one of the greatest Zen teachers. He lived during the Tang dynasty in ninth-century China. Collections of Zen stories contain many of his colorful, playful, and paradoxical teachings. One story in particular is quite succinct, and famous, and speaks directly to the topic of accepting what is. This story describes how one evening Joshu addressed a large assembly of monks. He said: “The Ultimate Path is without difficulty. Just avoid picking and choosing.”

Of course, we are assessing, discerning, and “picking and choosing” all the time. We have to. I pick and choose these words. We pick and choose our goals. At the same time, Joshu is suggesting that we not fall into a trap when measuring, when we reduce the value of our experiences, and the quality of our lives, by preferring some things and not others, by pitting a “favorite” against everything that doesn’t qualify as a favorite.

I have the same ambivalence with the popular notion of a bucket list — the list of things to do or places to visit before you die. It’s a terrific idea for focusing your attention on how to change your life to do the things that really matter to you. But it leaves out acceptance and gratitude. Despite fighting for change, we should recognize that there is nothing lacking from our lives. Our lives are perfect in this moment just as they are. We should be ready to let go, to die today, with open hearts and a sense of profound acceptance and satisfaction.

I had lunch recently with my friend Kaz Tanahashi, a world-renowned calligrapher and translator. He is also one of the most content, happy, and productive people I know. Kaz travels throughout the world teaching calligraphy and leading Zen retreats. He told me that upon returning from his travels recently someone asked him, “What’s your favorite city?” What a strange question, he thought. He wondered: If he named a favorite city, then when traveling to a city he hadn’t named, would he enjoy this city less? He answered by saying, “There are things I like about all the cities I visit.”