Like Tolstoy’s Ivan Illych, I’m confronted with the possibility that I was completely mistaken about the basic rules for a good life. Closer to the end of it than the beginning, I’m learning – like Ivan – that it’s never too late to question how you’ve been going about things in life.
For more than 40 years I thought age quod agis meant whatever you do, do it well. It echoed my father’s constant refrain: “if job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well”. These twin mottos fueled a mindset of perfectionism, procrastination, criticism and self-judgment. I rebelled of course. I am regularly sloppy. I have often failed, missed deadlines, disappointed people – but I could never avoid the great splat of guilt that dropped from the lofty heights of age quod agis. “Could do better” my mental report card always read.
My high school reunion is looming, and while procrastinating on work that needs to be done (and done well) I went to Google to confirm the translation of the school motto. And blow me down, as my Dad would say, I had it wrong.
Merriam Webster says the proper translation is: do what you are doing. That’s it. Period. Latin-dictionary.org says: pay attention to what you are doing. Apparently the Jesuits used the concept heavily to keep students focused. And, as poet Joseph Solemi says in the Pennsylvania Review, “The Jesuits didn’t become the most powerful order in the Catholic Church by letting their minds wander.” Amen to that.
Some Catholics may be uncomfortable with the thought, but the Jesuits were teaching basic Buddhist doctrine: to focus the mind at every moment on that moment. “Our appointment with life is in the present moment,” says the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “Just where you are, that’s the place to start,” says American nun, Pema Chodron. Even though I did four full years of Latin at high school, I completely missed the meaning of the school motto. Age quod agis is not the motto of perfectionism, it’s the motto of mindfulness.
Just doing what you’re doing is also part of yoga’s genius. By focusing only on where you are, this breath, this movement, you can unhook from the endless brain babble (what am I going to wear to the reunion? where’s that copy of The Death of Ivan Illych? it’s amazing how Solemi bitches out other poets in that article….argh, rain, have to bring the washing in……) By using nothing but the body and breath – the most obvious tools in the kit – things can become very simple for a short while. It’s one reason people walk out of a yoga class feeling better than when they walked in. For that period – even for just a few moments during class – you can simply do what you’re doing. And it’s enough.