QUESTION: What is spontaneity?

SHORT ANSWER: Acting without conscious motive.

ANSWER: Spontaneity, nowadays, tends to mean setting aside one's plan or schedule when one is moved or touched emotionally and allowing oneself to respond directly to those feelings. Originally the word meant to do something by one's own will. The essential idea is one of direct connection with immediate conditions.

We can therefore say that spontaneity occurs when self-consciousness is absent or over-ruled or reduced to the role of a secondary observer. We can imagine the position of a person who arrives intending to make a speech that he or she has rehearsed who, when they go to the rostrum to speak, feels a strong connection to the audience, puts the prepared script aside, and speaks freely from the heart directly to the people present.

Another nuance of spontaneity, therefore, can be to do with originality. To do something that one has never done before, or to do a familiar action in a new way, constitutes a kind of spontaneity. Such an act, whether great or small, has a freshness about it that will not be present when the act is repeated many times. In this sense, 'spontaneous' is the opposite of 'habitual'. In a conversation it is often quite noticeable if a person is saying things that they have said many times before or if they are thinking on their feet and expressing new ideas. This aspect of spontaneity is closely connected with creativity.

Then, again, spontaneity can refer to situations where one did something more or less involuntarily. One might say, for instance, i was feeling sad but when my friend walked into the room there was a spontaneous smile on my face. In this case the person’s own action surprises them. Another example might be: I did not think that i knew that song, but somehow, spontaneously, when the music played, the words came to me. Here, a distant memory or long forgotten experience might be being triggered. In this sense, spontaneity is close to intuition. What we do intuitively we do without conscious motive.

Thus spontaneity generally means without prior contrivance. Thus spontaneous acts can, inter alia, be due to an upsurge of emotion, enthusiasm for a new situation, the triggering of forgotten memories or the expression of unconscious intention. A person who is spontaneous can be either fun or alarming to be with and neither boring nor predictable.

Often our socialisation has the effect of inhibiting spontaneity. In order to avoid infringing social rules one strives to stay in control of one’s thoughts, feelings and actions. As a young person I was terribly shy, always feeling out of my depth in social situations. I still often find them quite challenging. As I have come to take myself less seriously this handicap has lessened.

A spiritually cultivated person is spontaneous much of the time in that the fundamental principles of life are so deeply integrated in him or her that they no longer think about them but simply act well in immediate response to each situation that arises. This is more or less the original meaning of 'mindfulness' - that one's heart/mind be so full of love and compassion that good comes 'naturally'. This, however, is rather different from acting according to rules - such a person is not easily predictable, since there may be a number of possible good responses to any particular situation. Here, ‘situation’ often means what was done or said by another person, so this includes the kind of repartee that one encounters in zen stories.

Spontaneity is associated with high energy states. We form habits as a means of limiting our expenditure of energy and minimising risk, However, if the amount of spontaneity in our lives drops below a certain level everything starts to feel dull and meaningless. Therapy and spiritual practice are, inter alia, concerned to bring spontaneity back into our lives. The times when we feel most engaged in an activity are when we are being most spontaneous.

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Replies to This Discussion

Thank you so much, Dharmavidya, for this very fine analysis of all the facets of the notion. As a Buddhist, I take the gesture of Sujata handing food to the exhausted Shakyamuni as the most wonderful example of spontaneity.

Yes, that is a very good example.

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