One thing at a time. That’s the path to a simple life and a straightforward mind (not-two).
Instead of multitasking, instead of our minds jumping rapidly from this to that, or trying to balance this, that, and the other thing simultaneously—we’re living one step at a time.
Even when we’re not multitasking, we’re usually still multitasking. If we’re making coffee while thinking about the meeting we have at 10am, that’s multitasking. The aim here is, when we’re making coffee, to just make coffee. If we’re preparing for that meeting, we’re just preparing for that meeting.
When we mix different dyes together, it can be tough to predict what hue we’re gonna get. Multitasking is like mixing dyes. Some of them might mix well, a few of them might create some barf-worthy colors.
Whatever we’re doing at any given moment is like dyeing a shirt. Then, we wear it. A lot of us end up walking around in really ugly shirts. Total eyesores that ruin everyone’s day, including ours.
All of these disgusting colors come from mixing the dyes. If we can stop mixing them, then we’re gonna be less of an eyesore to ourselves and others.
The way to do that is to do and think about one action at a time. We focus on what we’re doing. We focus on the movements, feelings, and steps involved in what we’re doing. Whenever our minds wander, or whenever we start juggling, we just gently come back to the task and situation at hand.
It takes time to cultivate this; that’s why it called a practice.
One Action has a second meaning as well. If we pay attention to what we’re doing, we start to see that one action always leads to another. If we look closer, we see that they don’t even lead to each other, they’re the same action transformed into a different situation.
Throughout our lives, we’ve only ever performed one activity. The same way that energy transforms from passive to kinetic to thermal etc., activity transforms into different functions.
You can see this directly. When I’m making coffee, for instance, each step in the process becomes the next step. They flow together without boundary, just like the motions in a dance. We don’t consider each step in a dance to be a different dance. It’s all the dance.
After I was done making coffee, I walked to my desk and started typing this. These aren’t two separate things. The action of me making coffee became me typing. Activity is activity, only the appearance changes.
When we don’t pay attention to One Action, we tend to trip over ourselves, others, and, well, everything. More than that, we can’t see the dance anymore. Everything seems chaotic, ugly, and hopeless.
But there’s a refined art to the daily events in our lives. It’s there in the most ordinary aspects of our days. It’s in each step, each breath, each thought without exception.
One Action practice shows us this dance, and we intuitively pick up the rhythm and get in step. The dance is going on right now, we’re already in it. In fact, we are it because without the dance, there aren’t any dancers.
One Action practice goes along well with shikantaza or just sitting meditation. Sitting is also an action, it’s something we’re doing. With shikantaza, when we’re sitting, we’re just focusing on the activity of sitting. In simpler terms, that means focusing on our posture. Whenever the mind wanders from our posture, we gently bring it back.
We notice thoughts and feelings, numbness and aches, all kinds of shit. But we’re not judging or analyzing any of it, we’re just sitting. Eventually, those agitated mental movements fade and we’re literally just sitting. Eventually, as Dogen put it, there’s, “A dropping off of body and mind.”
The body isn’t sitting, the discriminating mind isn’t sitting. Sitting is sitting. We see that there’s no self apart from sitting, and that sitting is really an aspect of universal activity. When we’re sitting, the entirely of time and space is sitting. All the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and sentient beings are sitting.
This universal activity is our true self or Buddha-nature. And in that moment, it’s just sitting.
So with One Action practice, when we’re walking, we’re just walking. When we’re eating, we’re just eating. When we’re watching TV, we’re just watching TV. When we’re sitting, we’re just sitting. This isn’t an easy practice, we’ve got years of resistance built up against it. But it’s a great practice.