“There is a secret key to nurturing your health. This key is an essential secret transmission that any person aiming to take good care of himself must understand and observe. The secret is in the single word decrease. Decrease means to reduce all of your ten thousand affairs and avoid increasing them. Be frugal in everything or, in other words, decrease your desires“ — Kaibara Ekiken, Yojokun: Lessons on Nurturing Life.
This saying, from an important text written by a practicing physician to the samurai class, contains a pregnant potency for deep meditation and reflection. The text is, in fact, most likely the source of the famous adage from Bruce Lee:
It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.
It seems as if the idea of decrease — comparable to alchemical distillation — is anathema in the modern world, as if anyone seriously entertaining this idea is somehow lacking will power or “work ethic”.
It stands in stark contrast, too, to the Abrahamic vision of the linear time and “progress.” The insatiable appetite for more and more products is used by advertising agencies just as the ego uses this idea to create desires for more and more experiences, always searching for the next products or “magic pill” which will brings us satisfaction… until the next commercial, heartbreak, or personal challenge.
The idea of clearing out the un-needed, and decreasing, is applicable to almost all levels of life. We feel this palpably when we clear out a physical space of old and unused items, and this can also apply the “social space” as well. The clearing out of friends or acquaintances who do not provide a positive environment is vital for personal and spiritual growth, and is often the space which needs the most decrease! How much time or energy are you losing on individuals who simply use your attention for ego feeding and provide no source of reciprocal support? We should decrease our social spaces just as much as we decrease our physical spaces.
The idea of decrease can also be applied to personal or professional studies whereby one stops running after each and every new source of information / stimulation and, rather, finds key foundational areas to cultivate a lifetime of deep dedicated study.
This is a basic idea in Eastern systems where students will spend literally a lifetime studying with one book or one teacher. In the modern world this is almost unheard of, with students and seekers constantly jumping from teacher to teacher, searching not so much for information as for personal validation!
The idea of decrease is clearly expressed in the study of martial arts and this is why Bruce Lee chose to use this idea as a foundational paradigm in his personal path and the creation of his unique fighting system Jeet Kune Do.
Even in fighting, students are constantly searching for the next “cool” style or the magic technique which will allow them to not have to do what is in reality the only path: work hard. Therefore it is vital for students in martial arts to find one teacher or one style to study and train and dedicate years and years to, at a minimum, build a basic foundation upon which hybridization can potentially occur. As it’s often said, it’s harder to find a good student than it is to find a good teacher.
In order to progress on any path, it’s essential for the student to find key mentors / teachers and stick with the path rather than chaotically jumping from teacher to teacher using the ersatz ideas of “chaos magic,” and so on, as a cheap excuse for deep dedicated study.
The idea of decrease is also key for the balancing of the mental “space.” Our minds are constantly filled with ephemeral wants and desires clouding the light of the Soul. This is why the practice of meditation is so vital for the pursuit of deeper spiritual transformation. I’m always shocked to hear how individuals claiming to be “hierophants” or “occultists” haven’t the slightest ideas of the actual technique of meditation nor practice this on a daily level. The practice of meditation is often diluted and cheapened as well, with individuals claiming daily mundane events just as walking the dog or reading as being their “meditation.” In reality, they are not doing any type of meditation yet use this excuse as another brick in the wall of the ego. Learning traditional meditation systems is vital for clearing the mind and walking the path of decrease. And for this to be successful, the student must find a teacher and a system and stay the course for years to expect to see the results!
I also see this obsession with “more” in many of the patients and athletes I guide or coach for training or heath matters. Individuals are often on an obsessive search for magic pills or magic medical systems to resolve health problems created by modern lifestyles. It’s very common for patients to seek out traditional systems of medicine such as Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine hoping to find an exotic “cure” for their problems. More often than not, these traditional systems of medicine demand that the patient radically reorient their entire lifestyle and / or diet which is not a popular prescription. When this happens, many patients become frustrated and claim the traditional systems “don’t work” and move on to quest for the holy grail of the quick-fix medical solution. Why change one’s life when one can just take a magic pill?
Often the best medical solution is not what to add, but what to decrease. I see this constantly when patient’s claim that some new fad diet is “working” for them. I ask the patient, “What are you doing with this new diet?” The answer is typically, “Well, I have given up all sugar, all processed foods, all dairy….” On and on and on. They describe what they gave up, and then claim to feel better. Irony upon irony, in some cases people even decrease calories and something truly magical occurs: weight loss.
Perhaps the next time you seek to find a new system, a new teacher, a new mantra or a new magical pill, ask yourself what you could give up first. Embrace the secret of decrease, clear away the dross, and discover the gold that is your Soul.