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Book Review : Matter of Paying Our Debt Back to Life

September 21, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

Water Bears No Scars: Japanese Lifeways for Personal Growth by David K. Reynolds, Ph.D. (Morrow: $5.95, paperback; 156 pages)

I must admit that as I first read through this book, it seemed just a little more than low key. And also, perhaps, that David K. Reynolds might be barking up the wrong tree altogether. "We live in an age of leisure," the introduction to this volume begins. But what if the harried reader is scrambling to get to work and back again, and leisure seems as far away as the tennis tournaments at Wimbledon?

When it comes to the low key part, here is David Reynolds as he begins to explain his approach to Morita and Naikan therapy--two structured Japanese disciplines of daily life that he speaks of primarily in terms of overcoming neurosis: "Let me begin with an example of common sense advice based on the moral wisdom of Morita therapy: Greet the people you work with and live near when you first encounter them each day. This advice is commonly given to people with difficulties in the social sphere such as shyness."

At first--forgive me--this advice seems just a little elementary, a little out-to-lunch, in the same way as a friend of mine once described a restaurant date of hers as "only having gotten up to Roquefort dressing." We should be striving surely to merge with the cosmos, and here's this guy telling us to say "Hi" to people when we get up in the morning?

A Day of Leisure

But as I write this review at home in a Los Angeles canyon (on a day of leisure, which most of us, no matter how hard we work, are bound to get sometime or other) two sets of sounds come sailing across the wide bowl of chaparral in which we live. A mile or so away, a stable is having a gymkhana, a perfectly modulated voice puts earnest equestrian students through their measured paces. And from somewhere else, comes the sound of a man brutalizing his wife or girlfriend: "What kind of a person do you think you are? Who do you think you are, you . . .?" Then a crash, a bang, a thud.

Guess what? This man, whoever he is, might have benefited from giving the person he works with and lives near a (correct) greeting when he got up this morning--something different than an epithet, a brutal threat, a rhetorical question, a crash, a bang, a thud.

"So many neurotic difficulties," David Reynolds continues, "can be solved by straightening out sloppy and thoughtless acts. Morals may not be the same from society to society or from individual to individual, but we cannot avoid the moral side of behavior and avoid psychological consequences."

"It's none of your business," the man raves on from across the canyon, "where I go or what I do!" (Conversely, from the other side of the bowl, the correct clipped orders go out to young women on horseback.) Reynolds goes on to write about behavior. "A feeling-based life is based in ups and downs," he remarks. "Feeling-oriented people play a risky game at uncontrollable odds. A better pay-off in life comes from steadiness in behavior. Let feelings take care of themselves."

Third in a Series

So this book then, the third in Reynolds' series on Morita and Naikan theories of behavior (and of the cosmos itself) is based far less on peak experiences and mystical epiphanies than it is on stability, dependability, paying our debt to life and to the earth. It is theology lowered (more accurately, raised) to an etiquette, a handbook of mystical good manners; a modest and orderly way to take your place in the universe. Reality, Reynolds suggests, is bigger than we are.

Instead, then, of shouting at someone who is physically smaller than we are (or dependent on us for sustenance or affection) we might do better to get involved in "Constructive Living," or "Self-Sacrifice." Reynolds suggests "neighborhood cleanup, performing secret services for others, volunteer activities and the like."

"For brief spans of time," the author maintains, "the mind that was tuned to the wavelengths of the self becomes attuned to others' problems and needs."

Ah, but why should we want to do that when clearly, it's more fun--at some level--to throw temper tantrums, to become (as in this very time frame) a center of attention, not just to one scared wife or girlfriend but to an entire rural neighborhood? Why is it more beneficial to be the one who rakes the leaves rather than leaving the mess on the kitchen sink?

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