When I was about 18 years old I had to go to the doctor because the cotton from a Q-tips got stuck in my ear. It wasn’t really Q-tips, it was the generic version, and while scratching away at the itchies in my ear, the cotton tip fell off in my ear canal. The more I tried to get it out the deeper I pushed it in. Finally I gave up and went to the emergency room.
When the doctor finally got it out of my ear, he gave me a sarcastic look and told me not to stick things in my ear. To add insult to injury my discharge papers had the words “DO NOT STICK Q-TIPS IN YOUR EARS!” printed right above the signature line.
I remember thinking how stupid this was. After all, what are Q-tips for? If they don’t want them going in people’s ears, why do they sell them? And why does the act of sticking them in your ears and wiggling them around feel so damn good … like an ear orgasm?
My entire life I have broken rules. More precisely, I have not allowed the fact that a rule exists to stop me from making a well-thought-out decision. If the rule makes sense, fine; but many, many — dare I say most — times, the rules are there for some archaic reason that only serves to limit us and our growth. Almost always the rule began as something helpful but has, over time, devolved into a control mechanism that, when challenged, results in the challenger being told, “Stop being a troublemaker and follow the rules.”
This is also the case, I’m finding more and more, in the spiritual world, where many really well-meaning people follow rules they think some ascended master left for them, like a breadcrumb trail designed to lead them down the enlightened path once blazed by a dead spiritual master.
The problem is that these spiritual masters were all, every one of them, independent-thinking rebels who achieved their status because they refused to listen to someone else’s version of enlightenment. They didn’t play by others’ rules, and that’s exactly why we love them. They provoked, they pushed the limits, they made the world think beyond its limitations, and then they died, after which their rebellious nature was converted into a series of rules, steps, and teachings that became rigid and static. While representative of the master’s words, the rules actually had (and have) very little to do with who the master was in his lifetime.
So what’s going on? Well, great teachers have great followers and great followers don’t often make great leaders. After the masters leave their bodies and their ashrams, the followers take over and in come the rules. They hang giant pictures of the guru, they print up books and more books of rules about how to live like the master, and prior to taking any action they ask the question, “What would Master So-and-So do?” Before long there is a complete and total lack of free thinking, which ironically is the one thing all the masters had in common: their complete and total independence from the status quo of the times.
Recently I had the opportunity to study with — or better stated, to experience — Deva Premal and Miten at their retreat in Costa Rica. Deva and Miten met at Osho’s ashram in India 20 some-odd years ago and have been making beautiful music ever since. The entire week we sat down twice a day and chanted together. In beautiful oneness, we simply sang. And you know the funny thing about it? Without their ever giving a single lesson, I learned so much. Somewhere in the harmonious sounds of our voices we found each other. On a perfectly struck chord from Miten’s guitar or a hauntingly beautiful note from Deva’s voice we intersected, and there in the ether I learned all I was to learn this week without a single rule or lesson plan. That is true mastery. As Lao Tzu is said to have said, “A leader is best when people merely know he exists … when his work is done the people will say ‘We did it ourselves.’”
Because this has inspired me, I’m going to institute a new mantra in my life. It’s very simple and, it’s even in English. So here it goes, put it to any music you like…
Tools, not rules.
That’s it. So simple anyone can say it and better still, anyone can apply it.
I’m serious about this: let’s throw away the rule book of spirituality and in our studies of all the great teachers let’s go beyond the words in a book, transcend what someone has told us the teacher said and actually look at their life. How did they live? What was their life’s mantra? Not their followers’ mantra, or what some edited book says, but what did the teacher actually demonstrate with their life? If that answer is fierce independence, creative thought, intuition, wisdom, and self-confidence, then in following their teachings we have to apply the same, even if it means breaking the rules of their organization. It means taking the teachings and applying them to today’s world, to our own lives, and using them as a tool, not a rule written in stone.
Anyone who encourages you to seek freedom or promises liberation, and then hands you a rulebook, is guaranteed not to deliver what he or she is promising. Because the path to liberation is not paved with rules, it is guided by tools. Like a river running down a mountain, guided by the rocks and boulders and fallen trees, we all need tools to assist us on our journey. But when the tools turn into a dam, the river stops flowing and becomes stagnant, which is what so many rules are – a stagnation of our natural liberated state.
Feeling stressed? Don’t see the Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment as a rule that you can’t desire anything. Use the teachings as a tool to give you perspective beyond what you are experiencing in the moment. Look at it as the Buddha’s bird’s eye view and see if it brings you a little relief.
Feeling restricted? Try stretching your body like the Yogis, not because you have to in order to find GOD, but because yoga is a tool that will bring you greater flexibility and the ability to meet life at different angles.
Is your mind racing? Sit down at relax, take a few deep breaths and meditate a moment. Don’t listen to all the rules of how you have to completely clear your mind, how you have to transcend it all – just breathe, relax as much as you can, and take a moment to experience self love and to be you without so much noise.
Is your body sick? Try a green juice – not because some naturalist doctor on TV said you must or you’ll die – but because it’s a tool to try for wellness. Experiment with your diet; see what makes YOU feel joy and ease and freedom in your body. You are the true doctor, you are the only expert on your body, so enjoy the process and find what’s right for you.
This applies to other areas of our lives as well.
As parents we have been sold this robotic pattern of parenting based on 1,001 rules to be a good mommy or daddy, which (we are told) produces a good little Tommy or Sally. Yet we are seeing firsthand as we look around the world and our homes that it doesn’t. Our homes have become war zones as we fight with our children to get them to school by the 7:30 a.m. bell (a rule), and fight some more to do their history homework about some war hundreds of years ago (a rule), and we fight over what music they can listen to (a rule and an ironic one given the music that shaped us all), and then we fight over our right to make the rules (“as long as I pay the bills and you live under my roof…”)
As husbands and wives we read the author of the month’s “7 Rules to Happy Marriage” and before long we have just layered on seven more reasons we’re not happy. We listen to rules from our friends and our parents and every talk show and magazine. And we look for signs that our mate is not what we want because there is a rule for that, too.
At work there are rules galore, so many rules that creativity is absent nearly everywhere you look. There’s a great commercial that shows all the amazing businesses that started in garages – Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, the list goes on and on. What the commercial doesn’t mention is that the garage is the new creative laboratory not because it’s a special place of innovation – it’s a place to store a car for God’s sake – but because the workplace has been so mired by rules that the great innovators have to flee to the garage to manifest their creativity.
I took a walk the other day down the one-mile stretch from my home to Whole Foods. I became fascinated by all the signs and started to read them out loud, much to the amusement of my wife. There were over 50 signs on this one-mile stretch, all of them with some rule, usually a painfully obvious rule like no parking on the busy expressway (which made up half the signs). I wondered how much money had been spent on all these signs; while teachers are being laid off we are making signs promoting stupidity. Hell, why do we need teachers anyway when we can just put up a sign every ten steps telling me what not to do?
So where do we go from here? I have a suggestion: it may not make me the most popular guy in town, but here it is.
I say we all take a time-out from these rules of how life should be; that we pause and consider for a day or two what we’re truly seeking in our lives, in our spirituality, and in our families. Is it a GOD that looks like the red and white “no stopping signs” along the expressway? Is it a family that resembles the freeway on-ramp at rush hour – “go, pause, stop — go, pause, stop?” Is it an existence of mimicry and regurgitation of someone else’s journey?
For me the answer is a resounding NO. My answer is that my path is about fresh ideas, about finding a joy that fits me, and about a family that is bound together by love, not what we have to do to appear to be loving. I love the teachings of the masters, I adore my teachers and their teachers – they are my family, and I deeply honor all of the steps taken on the path that preceded mine. So I walk with them, alongside them, not behind them like a baby elephant following its mother, but side by side, hand in hand, and at times I will even take a step outside the path and see what I can find.
Like so many of the great mantras say, “I bow to the guru in me.”
Today I bow to the guru in each of us and throw out the rulebook of life.
And so today I bow to the guru in each one of us and throw out the rulebook of life.
Big hugs of love,
7 thoughts on “Tools, Not Rules”
Karl Webster says:
Wow Jason, I couldn’t agree more…well said!!
Nagendra Nayak says:
Jennifer Worrall says:
Thankyou for sharing Jason……..incredible logic that explains exactly how humans FOLLOW…..glad I’m a “rule breaker” !! Hehe…..and being guided the right way in my newly found Spirituality and the POWER of ME….within me. 🙂
Wait so what are Q-tips for then?
Jason Garner says:
Exactly! Big hugs, Jason
Ray Khelawan says:
This is so interesting to me, because I’m all about following the rules. I’m so not a rule-breaker…..but I do value a lot of the things that you say! I’m learning so much from you!! Btw….q-tips are awesome!!