Thursday, October 22, 2009

It's not about the mess

Somewhere I once read that Zen is a process of de-symbolization. You could say that is what we mean by growth in awareness. We engage more directly in reality, so that dusting the floor is not about my mother's martyrdom or the division of labor in our household, is not labeled "shitwork" in my mind, but is - just dusting the floor. So maybe it's better to call a mess "a heap." Something like that that's not evaluative.

In order to get at the boxes strewn around my study (see How I Cleaned up this Mess) I had to get to seeing them as just boxes that were not where I wanted them to be. Nothing more.

There was another element to what you could call the spiritual preparation for this ordinary daily work: I had to get past my ideas and reactivity. This is one of the main reasons I continue to meditate; sitting there doing nothing I watch my mind come up with these twists of idea we call "problems". I see that these ideas are just smoke rising in little tendrils from my mind, like the smoke from incense, and that if I let them go, they do pass.

My ideas were full of should and ought: I should clean that up. If I listen I can hear my father's faint voice saying the kind of things he said automatically, without thinking of the impact: What're you, lazy? Other phrases murmur in the background. Live like pigs. Decent people.

Second came my reaction to that nagging: Don't want to. There is within me a well-formed kid of about eleven years old, standing up to them, becoming herself by saying No, I won't. I am hesitant to share this, but it's the honest truth. I think too much spiritual writing is abstract and impersonal, while our real life is concrete, personal, intimate, and freckled.

So you could say that whenever I looked at the boxes this little chorus of Should and Won't rose around me, and of course my instinct was to flee. Go check e-mail. Who wants to make their way through a thicket like that?

How did I settle down and confront the, ah, heap? I found a method, which I will share next time. But before a method could work I needed to strengthen the I who wanted her study clean and simple. The real person of today who is in there, even if bedeviled by ideas and reactivity. How do you get that one to pilot the boat? That is maybe the first question we should ask ourselves every morning, isn't it - today, how do I find my soul? (Or my buddha-nature. Or the real me. Whatever your language is for that.)

What, soul in going through boxes of old photographic equipment? I think that better be where we find ourselves, because we cannot go on living in blissful retreats where the Zendo is immaculate and it is fortuitously Indian summer. Our real life is right here at home among the dust bunnies.


  1. I find that once I get past the boxes as being an obstacle, and settle into my work, it becomes less about clearing out a mess or overwhelming chores, and more about the present moment of moving boxes or rearranging furniture or whatever it may be. It's that aversion to the chore that seems to get in my way. Thanks for the post. Most needed.

  2. *still chuckling*

    Wonderful. Just wonderful!

  3. Yes!

    Meditation, for me, is about exploring the content of sensory experience rather than the composition. We hone the ability to notice the activity of our senses (touch, sight, sound, feel, image, talk: instead of jumping to what it all means -- or even what each individual component means.

    And what is the Zendo for other than to provide a gym for us to develop these muscles to bring back into our ordinary lives? It provides an opportunity for us to bring extraordinary attention to ordinary experience. The same kind of extraordinary attention it takes to learn to play the piano, drive a car, or learn a new language.

    You might like these: ,

  4. Yes, I went to the first site, your quote from Shinzen Young on how the monastery comes to us. It has come to me this year three times in terms of hospitalizations. Each has been so intense, purified of all my ordinary experience, of course accompanied by all sorts of fear and frustration, big things to work with. I always thought it was like going on retreat.