Thoughts And Ideas
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Thoughts And Ideas

An Exploration of the Spontaneity of Everyday Life

Jackson Pollock, ‘Untitled’ (1950)

Spontaneity is a feeling of freedom. Usually, we are concerned with routine and predictability. We want life to go a certain way so that we may accomplish and do what we want. But there are moments that break through the surface, like errant thoughts — moments we could never have predicted. These moments of spontaneity remind us that life is unpredictable, that, no matter how well-thought-out our plan is, there are always surprises in store for us.

Sometimes these little surprises are unsettling. They may undermine our authority, pull us off balance, and make us feel out of control. But if we can take a moment to enjoy life, if we are not only concerned with getting where we need to go, spontaneous actions are a breath of fresh air. They reconnect us to our sense of creativity.

This is why, for fun, many of us take improv comedy classes, or play on sports teams, or learn to play in a band. These activities, though sometimes scary, force us into spontaneous action. The moment comes for us to play, and we have no choice but to dive in and see what happens, without knowing for sure that it will work out. We witness the spontaneous bloom within ourselves. When we undertake these kinds of activities (where we must act without planning), we feel a sense of freedom.


Spontaneity can occur in a “eureka!” moment, when a previously unseen connection is realized in the mind. A problem troubles us for days until suddenly, without our conscious help, an answer simply pops into our head, as if teleported from some other realm. We advise each other to “sleep on it,” for this reason — perhaps the answer will come to you.

We also admire the spontaneous in others: the way your friend’s expression changes from stern to delighted in an instant; the inspired acting decision on display in an otherwise mundane television sitcom; the little girl at the subway stop who was looking the wrong way for the train to arrive. We witness these moments of quiet revelation within ourselves and others, day in and day out.

Subtle Smile

Sengai Gibon (1750–1837), Unknown title

Spontaneous action is central to spiritual philosophies. Zen Buddhism, for example, presents us with hundreds of enigmatic sayings or stories which challenge us to think in new ways, starting with this story of the Buddha himself: Sakyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, 6th century BC) gave a sermon consisting of no words. Instead of speaking, Buddha simply held up a white flower. While the rest of the audience sat in consternation, one disciple, Mahakasyapa, smiled in realization. We may recall similar moments in our lives when someone said something that only we understood; and vice versa when we were struggling to glimpse what others saw clearly.

I recall from Sunday school a New Testament story (found in Matthew 12:1–8, Mark 2:23–28, and Luke 6:1–5), where Jesus and his disciples ate grain from a field on the Sabbath. When a stranger saw this, he admonished them for breaking the rules of the sacred day of rest. But Jesus answered that “something greater than the temple is here.” We may recall similar moments in our lives when the rules we thought were important fall away in the moment. Life demands improvisation.

Coffee, anyone?

Perhaps these spiritual teachers subtly hint that all things are spontaneous. Every event bursts into the present moment, including the things we do not typically consider spontaneous — our controlled actions and volition.

If we examine our experience, we may see that our decisions are also spontaneous. We want something as we encounter it, or as it occurs to us. From the couch, I remember, out of nowhere, that we have still have some iced coffee left in the fridge, and in the next moment I am preparing a glass and checking if the milk is still good. This decision was nowhere to be found moments ago and will disappear seamlessly into the next thought, the next motivation. Coffee in hand, I remember that I need to finish writing an article and sit back down with the laptop. All action manifests in the present moment as if life is happening to us, instead of us happening to the world.


Claude Monet, ‘Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond’ (1920)

This intuition may be what compels great artists to dwell on small, mundane moments. Through the artist’s examinations (as in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes place over a day, or Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which takes place over an escalator ride) the routines of life become cosmic, as if the conversations in our heads are as mysterious as the motions of galaxies.

On the other end of the spectrum we have a haiku of Bashō, which brilliantly captures a fleeting, arbitrary moment (translated by Allen Ginsberg):

The old pond

A frog jumped in,


These artists seem to unconsciously understand the meaning of Wittgenstein’s saying (from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus): “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.” In the surprise of the present moment, we may understand it too.

Thirty two translations of Matsuo Bashō’s frog haiku.
For a great book about koans, check out John Tarrant’s Bring Me The Rhinoceros: And Other Zen koans That Will Save Your Life.

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