There Are No Instructions


“You have come to the shore. There are no instructions.” —From the poem “The Book Without Words,” by Denise Levertov, after a painting by Anselm Kiefer


True. There are no instructions for life. We each have to make the best of it using whatever we have been taught in childhood and whatever we learn and whatever resources we cultivate as adults. Many of us seek a kind of instruction manual—a religious or spiritual tradition, a community organized around common values and perspectives, devotion to work, study, or service, etc. It can be helpful to have some guiding principles to shape our lives. But life doesn’t usually follow our program as closely as we’d like, and ultimately, we are subject to the vast uncertainties that all living beings face on Earth.


There are practices, however, that can make the uncertainties and challenges of life more manageable and easier to bear. They can’t produce an instruction manual, but they can diminish the desire for one. Meditation, yoga, and similar practices help us develop and nurture a strong relationship with our bodies that balances out the primary relationship most of us have with our minds. It’s our minds that yearn for an instruction manual in an effort to keep us safe and happy. Our bodies are connected to the Earth and the broader universe. They know what serves us in the present and what doesn’t. They know what feels right to us in the present and what doesn’t. They know what’s likely to reinforce our unwanted patterns and habits and what’s likely not to. When we have access to that intelligence, we may not have instructions for our lives as a whole or for the future, but we do have reliable information about what serves us in the present, which is the only time and place we actually have, despite our minds telling us otherwise. That information enables us to make choices that lead to peace and contentment in our lives.


So instead of fretting about the randomness of life or bemoaning the vagaries of the human condition, let’s commit to discovering the greatest source of life-affirming intelligence that’s actually available—our true selves, our essential nature, which is accessed through our bodies. That fretting and bemoaning has produced a great deal of magnificent art in many forms—like Denise Levertov’s poem--and that is something to be cherished and grateful for. But even as we appreciate great art, we realize that it is no substitute for the joy of living an authentic, fully satisfying life.

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