Description vs. Injunction

Imagine that I bake you an apple pie. You tell a friend about it. You might describe the sight and smell of the pie on the table before you. Perhaps you describe the sound of steam hissing from the crust. You might even attempt to describe the taste as you eat it.

Apple harvest!

These descriptions are not without effect. They may – they likely will – trigger memories of your friend’s own pie-eating experiences. They may motivate her to eat a slice of the pie, or share a pie-related memory with you, or even consider baking a pie herself.

Descriptions are an important aspect of being in the world with others. They help us categorize and thus organize our living in resonant ways that make community both possible and sustainable.

However, one thing a description of pie will not do is enable someone to bake a pie. For that, they will need an actual recipe. And a recipe for apple pie does not look, smell or taste like apple pie!

Recipes are injunctive: do this, then do that, then do these other things, and you’ll get X.

Descriptions, while nontrivial, are not injunctive.

No judgment obtains here. Descriptions of pie are helpful according to context. Injunctions – recipes for pie – are helpful in context, too.

It is really a question of what one wants. If you want to inspire someone to bake, then descriptions are very helpful. If you want to actually bake, then recipes are indispensable.

Of course, I am not really thinking of pies here so much as what I – with lots of cultural support – long called “awakening,” which was vague shorthand for transitioning from a less desirable way of being one that was more desirable, where “desirable” was a sort of constellation of happiness, generosity, creativity, inner peace, dialogue, et cetera.

A lot of texts that I read on the subject were essentially descriptions of singular experiences that their authors had had and/or descriptions of what life was like in the wake of those transformational experiences.

Those descriptions did what descriptions do: they enabled me to compare my own experience with someone else’s, reflect on the differences and similarities, and make adjustments to my behavior accordingly.

All this beauty will rise to bless your sight as you look upon the world with forgiving eyes. For forgiveness literally transforms vision, and lets you see the real world reaching quietly and gently across chaos, removing all illusions that had twisted your perception and fixed it on the past. The smallest leaf becomes a thing of wonder, and a blade of grass a sign of God’s perfection (T-17.II.6:1-3).

Who doesn’t want that experience as it’s described in A Course in Miracles?

Another example is Coleman Barks’ (roughshod) approach to Rumi’s poetry. Barks is not actually translating Rumi because translating involves some nontrivial fidelity to the original work. Barks is transposing contemporary spiritual values (in the service of capitalist values) on to the original. Hence, Rumi is sexualized, romanticized, Christianized and – critically – stripped of Islam specifically and religion generally. The original is blotted out in favor of a bland but highly marketable substitute.

When it’s cold and raining,
you are more beautiful.

And the snow brings me
even closer to your lips.

The inner secret, that which was never born,
you are that freshness, and I am with you now.

Barks’ work is popular because it is an effective (nonthreatening, non-demanding) description of what folks imagine awakening or enlightenment will be (represented by an answer to loneliness and a means of satisfying bodily appetites). But because it’s (primarily) merely descriptive, it can’t actually induce the experience it purports to describe. It might motivate us to seek teachers; but it is not itself the teacher.

We tend to conflate description with injunction. It’s easier to describe a pie than to learn how to bake one. But if it’s pie you are really after, you can’t eat a description of one.

So if somebody is serious about “awakening” – or at least in having the experience of trying to have the experience of awakening and seeing what happens consequently – then at some point they’re going to have to jettison the descriptions, no matter how sweet or poetic or otherwise fascinating, and get on to the injunction. Do this, do that.

Last year I taught a writing class centered around a number of cross-cultural traditional and contemporary texts on happiness. It was clear to us as we read and talked and wrote that happiness was effectively a hack. That is, there are things one can do to be more effectively happy. Why not do them?

For example, if you get a reasonable amount of exercise, eat a reasonable diet, touch and be touched by both bipeds (and quadrupeds et cetera), avail yourself of art, do work that is meaningful, then – allowing for variations in neurotypicality – you’re going to be happier. Not perfectly happy or always happy. Just happier.

So as spiritual seekers or however we identify, it is helpful to give attention to what a given teacher or text is doing: is it descriptive or injunctive? The point is not that one is better than the other but that they yield different effects. The real question is: which is most helpful to you where you are?

If you’re happy with descriptions, then great! If you want the thing being described, then find the injunctions – the recipe, if you will – that provide it. If you are not experiencing awakening, and you would like to, then seek out texts that are injunctive and follow them. Avoid texts that merely (or mainly) describe awakening.

Not all injunctive texts are created equal! They do not work uniformly. Every serious pie baker has a favorite recipe; most of them have evolved to an unspoken pie recipe. The recipe that is most helpful to a beginner, will depend a lot on resonances that are not quantitative. What works for us – as a pointer, a practice, a theory, et cetera – will not work for everyone. This does not constitute a crisis!

The point is not to be critical of a given author or text – what doesn’t work for us might work fine for someone else (or for us at a later juncture) – but to give attention to what our needs are and seek out texts and teachers that are responsive to those needs.


  1. Ah. So now I know it is “Out beyond ideas of religion and infidelity, there is a field.” This is more helpful than what I had believed the quote to say.

    I have a friend, a 90-year-old poet who has published several books of spiritual poetry, at least one of them inspired by Rumi. She recently encountered Coleman Barks’ interpretation (amazing it took this long) and was completely thrown and somewhat disillusioned by the seeming debauchery of some of the sexual references.

    I would like to share not only the New Yorker article with her but your explanation above as it offers a concise and helpful perspective. But I did not wish to do that without your permission.

    Thank you, Sean. Please know you remain in my heart.

  2. There is too that most fundamental confusion, of making the descripton and/or recipe giver that which the giver is pointing at. Jesus, Buddha, Koran, ACIM – all try to warn, but the warning is inverted. As simple as “I Am” given as a name, now is inscrutable as the big God’s name, instead of “hey, It’s you/me!” I like nice tight (un)recipes like “you can’t use the Buddha to seek the Buddha”, and descriptions like “what’s looking is looking for what is looking”. And then proscriptions like Adyashanti’s, that spiritual paths are designed to help us fail more softly. And of course all the good pointers that keep turning me around to Now having the whole recipe and blends description and Described into one (or is that only a description?!).

    1. Adyashanti’s point is well-taken! Thank you for sharing that.

      I think the line between description/injunction blurs a lot, depending on where we are. Material I think of as “descriptive” was at one time probably “injunctive.” Certainly I experienced a lot of ACIM that way. Perceiving and honoring the distinction has been helpful to me, particularly when combined with just relaxing about “right,” “wrong,” “not yet but soon” and so forth.


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