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

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The Musings of a Long-time Student of Meditation

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Working It

"There is no enlightenment outside of daily life."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh
 
"When you see ordinary situations with extraordinary insight, 
it is like discovering a jewel in rubbish."  
-- Chogyam Trungpa


 
Gold Is Not All That Glitters

Years ago, I was quite struck by a suggestion in Ram Dass's classic, Be Here Now.  It changed my life.
 
In the third section of the book, entitled "Cookbook for a Sacred Life," he pointed out that a yogi could take a regular mundane activity and turn it into karma yoga, a form of active meditation.  He suggested that choosing something that we disliked could be an especially valuable practice.
 
At that point, I chose washing the dishes, took a deep breath -- 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)

The experience was transformative.  

Letting go of all the mental chatter and emotional grey clouds and focusing on the actual experience of the moment, dishwashing not only became tolerable, it became the keys to the kingdom.  Getting out of my head, becoming aware of my breath and my body, I came to my senses.  The warmth of the water on my skin was delicious.  The tactile sensations of plates becoming clean and shiny, smooth to the touch, was not only enjoyable, it was deeply satisfying.  
 
In my field of vision, the sunshine streaming through the window was sprinkling diamonds in the water pouring out of the faucet.  There were emeralds, rubies, and sapphires gleaming in the soap bubbles.  The curtains danced in the soft breeze blowing in the window over the sink. 
 
In the field of sound, I noticed that beyond the sound of water flowing into the sink and the occasional clink of a dish or spoon, a cardinal was singing outside the window. 

Zap! 
 
What's not to like?

I suppose you could say that there's lots not to like about such things -- but only if you buy into society's prevailing attitude toward manual labor!  Unfortunately, many of us made that purchase long ago.  We had no idea what the price was going to be, that there was hell to pay.  Hours and hours of were going to be spent either hating what we were doing or sleepwalking through it.

In the eyes of our society such work is unskilled, the realm of dishwashers, janitors, and housekeepers.  Considered lowly, even demeaning -- or experienced as heinous tasks that had been forced upon us by our parents -- the necessary activities of day-to-day life are often avoided, then raced through haphazardly while our minds race elsewhere.  Although many of us actually feel better if our living space is clean and organized, housekeeping itself often becomes an often-avoided, semi-conscious, harried, hustle through the hell realms.

Yet, it's never too late to clean up our act.  It just takes Practice.
Cleaning up our Act
 
Let's get Real.  Most of us have to clean, do dishes and laundry, and (shudder) take out all the freakin' garbage we've created.  This is just Life as it is.  

Although housekeepers and janitors probably aren't going to make it into Who's Who in today's world, the tasks they perform are the essential warp and woof of the Grand Tapestry of Real Life.  As such, these activities are the perfect ground for Mindfulness Practice.  They've been the foundation of Zen Training throughout history.  When approached as Practice, with the physical and sensory experience of the activity becoming the object of mindful awareness, we can refine our attention and even connect with our True Nature.  In the process, we can transform a dirty bathroom into the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha.

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.  Our senses then become our direct connection to the limitless grandeur of this limitless universe. Mindful of the movement of our breath and body, the tactile sensations we are experiencing, and the sights, sounds and odors of the task at hand, we can open to the Limitless Awareness that is always present.  The miraculous nature of life becomes self-evident.  

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 of the educational wing of the Chicago Buddhist Temple, having traveled down from a small town in Kenosha County, Wisconsin by train.   Although I had consumed books and books of teachings by then, and had meditated (or thought I did) for several years, I had never been face to face with an actual meditation teacher.

The first encounter with Reverend Kubose had occurred the night before.  He had graciously welcomed me at the door of his home -- a full day before the start of Sesshin.  Adrift in stories of how such things might be done in medieval Japan, I didn't even think of calling ahead, or registering for the sesshin, etc.  In a classic example of youthful cluelessness, I just showed up. 
(When Sensei's wife poked her head into the kitchen moments later, she just rolled her eyes and left. )
 
A man of few words, once he determined that I was there to attend the sesshin and that I wasn't hungry, this kind and gentle man showed me where the Zendo was, then walked me to what appeared to be a children's classroom in one wing of the building and showed me where I could lay out my sleeping bag.  He then told me to meet him in the Zendo the next morning an hour before the sesshin started, bowed, -- and left.

Used to sleeping bags and floors at that time in my life, I fell asleep quickly and 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 70s at the time, his gait was fluid and steady, graceful.  His demeanor was calm and focused, though he noticed me almost immediately.  He then bowed, and with a gesture indicated I should bow and enter 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 lay 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 once again.

I'm in tears sitting here, filled with gratitude for the depth of his teaching that morning -- and his decades of service to all sentient beings.

To mix traditions a bit: Jai Guru Deva Jai!

6 comments:

HFSurfing said...

Great Story Lance
thank you
regards
rinus

Lance Smith said...

Hi Rinus,
So good to hear from you again. It's been awhile. I hope that you and yours are well and staying safe.
One Love,
Lance

Unknown said...

Did you receive my post, Lance?

Lance Smith said...

Hi "Unknown," There's only this comment here. Did you post something else here -- or elsewhere?

Tamboora said...

Good Story Lance. Such "How I met my teacher" frst encounters are all unique. As is yours. Un ceremoniously profound.

HFSurfing said...

Hi Lance and others
Yes it has been a while ago but i still often read your very good writings
We are still in good health, luckily but due to my health problems i must be extra carefull...But eventually we all need to do that...Meditation is of great help to me..everyday i ""do"" it
Wishing you good health
Love
rinus