In Zen Buddhism one method of freeing the mind is the use of koan riddles, like the familiar “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” There are also a lot of aphorisms or sayings used to try to get the student to break through to enlightened thinking, if not enlightenment. One such is “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.” In the Buddhist monasteries and nunneries, just as in those medieval Christian institutions, all the daily business, the cooking, laundry and gardening as well as the cleaning and tending of the sick were done by the monks and nuns. While many would have preferred to spend their time in writing, chanting or meditation, these things still needed to be done. To have numerous outsiders coming in to do it naturally would have been disruptive to the community.
As the year end approaches and I try to tie up loose ends and set things up for a productive coming year, I have found myself resenting all sorts of distracting mundane tasks. While I still intend to streamline and simplify my routine, in meditation this phrase came into mind. Perhaps I needed to reassess my attitude.
Enlightenment is rarely an instantaneous “Eureka” moment. Is is most often a slow process in which each small revelation and insight build to larger breakthroughs. Even more, the enlightened person does not immediately shed their body and vanish into the infinite; they go on living, needing food clothing and shelter. This is one way to view the saying, that what changes for the enlightened person is the person themself and not the external world. It also suggests the enlightened person has full realization of this and does the daily mundane things without investing emotional attachment, neither resenting the triviality or exagerating the importance of the chore. This one of the ways I am choosing to interpret it. I am going to stop thinking of these things as a distraction and an interference and simply do them as calmly and efficiently as I can.
While the saying seems simply to say “Carry on as before.” I also realized that it is also helpful to realize that an enlightened person is not attached to outcomes but lives fully in the moment, completely mindful of all around. Doing thinks I have found annoying and boring could be transformed by using them to practice mindfulness. How many people work all day with only half their minds or attention on their work? To fully focus on each task and do it thoroughly without letting the mind slide forward into anticipation is a tough exercise. Doing repetitions of physical exercise like weight lifting or calisthenics is much easier, you have to focus or you will drop the weight or loose your balance.
Cats live naturally in the moment. It is not that they do not remember and learn but rather that they focus only on what they are doing. Watch a cat grooming, as I am doing as I type this. Dolly and Mi Sun are concentrating and thorough, carefully covering each area until satisfied without noise, extra motion or glancing around. Although Mi Sun just started staring at me, I think she knows her name is being mentioned. Ah, now she is right back to work. I remember the book from 1984 that took the heart of the Zen saying as it’s title. I do not currently have a copy handy but I think it is going on my winter reading list to revisit as I try to implement some of this philosophy into my life.
In the meantime Mi Sun is leading by example, having flopped down beside me and begun loudly purring to get my attention. As I loook at her, she says “Mao”, and yes, I see by the time on the laptop I must mindfully focus on getting up a feline dinner.