"Mindfulness Practice isn't just about escaping to some magical inner realm devoid of life's challenges. The Practice is about progressively opening your heart and calming your mind enough to engage Life directly, to be more fully Present in a kind, clear, and helpful way."

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call! Musings on Life and Practice by a Long-time Student of Meditation.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Working It

"When you see ordinary situations with extraordinary insight, 
it is like discovering a jewel in rubbish."  
-- Chogyam Trungpa, 
"Work", The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation

“So if you do something, you should be observant, and careful, and alert.”
―Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

The Studio at Community Yoga
I have been involved with Community Yoga and Wellness Center here in Greenfield, a small town in western Massachusetts, for about four years now.

I had decided that I wanted to reclaim a hatha yoga practice as part of my rehab from a cardiac procedure back then, and was attending my first class at a series offered by the local food coop when the teacher that day, Jenny Chapin, announced at the end of class that she was looking for a someone to exchange custodial duties for yoga classes at the studio she owned and directed.  

"Wow!", I thought.  Now retired, with much more time than money, looking to regain a serious practice, I was on my feet and headed in her direction immediately.  The brief discussion with Jenny was quite positive.  I started the next day.  

Although a lot of changes have occurred, (I now coordinate a team of barter students to cover the rent for Monday Morning Mindfulness there), today I found myself again dancing with a mop, observing an entryway landing marred with mud, melted snow, sand and salt steadily disappear, to then return to view reincarnated as a gleaming hardwood floor.  Due to transitions in the Caretaking Crew and a particularly snowy winter, it was the third time this week that I had the opportunity to personally participate in this form of ritual magic. 

I'm not chomping at the bit to find a replacement.

Gold Is Not All That Glitters

Years ago, I was quite struck by a suggestion in Ram Dass's classic, Be Here Now.  In the final section of the book, "Cookbook for a Sacred Life", he suggested that you take a regular mundane activity that you really disliked and turn it into a form of active meditation.  I chose washing the dishes -- and immediately headed out to the kitchen to face the unsightly stack that had emerged over the course of the past few days.  (I really hated washing dishes. LOL)
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I was amazed to find that once I was able let go of all the mental chatter and emotional storm clouds, dishwashing not only became tolerable, it became quite pleasant.  Coming to my senses, the warmth of the water on my skin felt delicious.   The tactile sensations of plates becoming clean and smooth to the touch was actually enjoyable.  Eyes engaged, I noticed that the sunshine streaming through the window was lacing the running water with diamonds and there were emeralds, rubies, and topaz gleaming in the soap bubbles.  

What's not to like?

Lots -- if you buy into the prevailing ideas about "menial" labor.  And, unfortunately, many of us made that purchase, long ago, before we knew what the price was going to be.

Considered lowly, even demeaning, many of the basic necessary activities of day to day life are often avoided, then raced through while our minds race elsewhere. In mainstream society, these activities, and those who perform them, are considered "unskilled".  They are somehow beneath us -- whoever the hell "us" is in the context of real life,  because most of us still have to clean, do laundry, and take out the garbage.

Conflicted from the get-go, a whole realm of straight forward, and necessary physical activity generally becomes experienced as gruntwork, drudgery. Programmed in a hierarchical society to feed our egos by,"lording it over" somebody, we can find ourselves being bored and frustrated schleps -- a lot. 

It doesn't have to be this way. 

Although housekeepers and janitors aren't going to make it into Who's Who, the duties they perform are the warp and woof of the tapestry of Real Life.  As such, they are a wonderful ground for Mindfulness Practice -- and a staple of Zen Training.  When approached as Practice, with the physical and sensory experience of the activity becoming the object of meditation, we can refine our attention and explore the nature of our own mind.

Like any form of Practice, with time and careful attention, something shifts.  Letting the thoughts and feelings come and go without paying them undue attention, we come to our senses.  At that point, the movement of our body, the tactile sensations we are experiencing, and the sights, sounds and odors of the task at hand are all that exists.  When that happens the very ordinary becomes very special. 

A Master at Work

My second encounter with my first embodied Zen teacher, Reverend Gyomay Kubose came on the morning of the weekend Sesshin scheduled to begin that evening.  I had spent the night sleeping on the floor in the educational wing of the Chicago Buddhist Temple, having traveled down from a small town in Kenosha County, Wisconsin.  Although I had consumed books and books of teachings by then, and meditated (or thought I did) for a few years, I had never been face to face with an actual meditation teacher.

The first encounter had occurred the night before as Reverend Kubose had graciously welcomed me at the door of his home -- a full day before the start of Sesshin.  (a story of hippie cluelessness best left for later..).  After making sure his unexpected visitor wasn't hungry, (his wife poked her head into the kitchen at one point, rolled her eyes and left), Sensei Kubose had shown me where to lay out my sleeping bag, then told me to meet him in the Zendo the next morning. 

Used to sleeping bags and floors at that time in my life, I slept soundly.

Reverend Gyomay Kubose 1905-2000
When I arrived at the entryway to Zendo the next day, Sensei was dry-mopping its polished wooden floors as sunlight streamed through the windows.  In his early 70's at the time, his gait was fluid and steady, his demeanor calm and focused.  He noticed me almost immediately though.  He then bowed, and with a gesture indicated I should bow as I entered the zendo.  I did.

Me being me, I immediately asked if i could help, extending my hands to take the handle of the mop.  Instead he asked me to follow him over to a table in a side room.  There, laid an assortment of flowers and a vase.  With a minimum of instruction he asked me to arrange the flowers and place the vase on the altar when I had finished. He then turned and began mopping again.

I learned a lot that day.

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