Sunday, January 20, 2008

On Doing What You're Doing - or not

Last week I went away to the country for a few days.

I know that will sound laughable to many, if not most of you. What is West Park, New York if not The Country? There are plenty of places on the property here where it is easy enough to imagine that you are the only person in the world. We have a view of miles and miles of river and hills. Often the only sounds are birds and the trains that pass on the other side of the Hudson River. We are most people's definition of "away".

Nevertheless, I went away. I went to visit a friend who lives in a valley west of here, and being at her place is really Away. Here we have all of the communication devices of the modern world - Internet, Cable, email, cell phones. The nearest shopping center is not any further away than it is for most suburban dwellers and the nearest mall isn't much further than that, nor is the 12 plex cinema. The house I went to is quite different. It's a converted barn and it's the essence of simplicity. One big room downstairs and one big room upstairs (plus bathrooms and another very small room on each floor). Lots of glass, lots of light, lots of trees and fields, lots of quiet. And, though the nearest houses are nearer to her than I am used to, the simplicity makes up for that: no TV, no radio, no signal for a cell phone, no movies in local town and the only mall went broke several years ago. We had a few CD's for music, a wood stove for a nice fire, lots of candles and good conversation. We cooked some killer meals. We were quiet. Heaven!

And in the midst of that simple relaxing space I had a significant learning experience. I was washing the breakfast dishes one morning (yes, by hand!). I was so relaxed that I was doing nothing but what I was doing and only thinking about what I was doing. And I wasn't doing it as a Practice, but I was actually doing what Practice is designed to lead to: I was just there. There wasn't anything else to do but wash the next utensil, and there wasn't anything to think about but how to apply the soapy water.

In fact, I was washing a knife - I do remember that. I had the sponge in my right hand and the knife in my left hand, and I can still see the suds and smell the gentle lemony scent of the dishwashing liquid. I was just - and only - washing that silver table knife. And all of a sudden there was this twisting inside. It was down in my gut and it felt like I was being twisted out of alignment. It was completely physical and it felt like I had just turned in the wrong direction. It was very unpleasant.

What was this? I knew almost instantaneously. It was my body's reaction to the instant in which I stopped being in that present moment and began to think about something other than what I was doing. I had taken my mind off the knife I was washing and started to think about something else, and my body had reacted physically and loudly.

I was able to be aware of this, of course, because I was so relaxed. I had very few things to think about that day. I had slept very well the night before and the biggest event of the current day was going to be making the fire in the stove. I was, to put it mildly, not very distracted. I had a simple task to approach in a simple way and that was it. Nor was my distracting thought anything of any significance. It was so irrelevant that I can't even remember what it was, except I retain a sense that it was of no significance. It was just a random distraction. What was going on was that I had actually gotten relaxed enough to notice what was going on inside me. And my insides had responded with a message: "this is what happens when you try to do one thing and think about something else."

Wow! To think that I had never noticed that. Most days I walk around in a fog of distractions. I'm rarely completely focused on being where I am and doing what I'm doing. I carry around a very active mind that feeds me with all kinds of things to think about that have nothing to do with where I am or what I'm doing. Meditation is no different: it is a school of learning about how fragmented my mind usually is. But for one precious moment at the sink last week, I actually had an experience of the price that I pay for living like that. The price is being twisted out of alignment, and I presumably pay that price nearly every moment of every day. I had just never felt it before.

So what is going to change as a result of this enlightening experience? Well, if the days since then are any indication, nothing much. It all feels pretty much the same as it did before. Am I more centered? Well, no.

Or is that true? It is true that I don't discern much difference in my foggy distracted states, but it's also true that this experience of the price I pay for living that way shows no signs of decreasing in importance for me. It seems to have been one of those rare but priceless moments of actually waking up to reality. And so what I think about reality has also changed. Where I think I am headed has also changed. I think it would be a big mistake to try to force myself back to that experience or to try to force my days into that mold - that would just be to multiply internal conflict. But what I think - no , what I know - about the world has shifted. And that is going to shift how I live. Quite simply, I know that is so, even if I can't see quite how that will work itself out.

I had a brief, momentary experience of how I was made to be in alignment with my actions, and of how rarely I live in harmony with that. Of course, I knew that before. I've known it for years. Every spiritual book I read tells me that. I talk about it to other people. I have known that it's true for years, decades. I had just not seen it at this depth. I'm not feeling judgmental about that, it is just a consequence of living in this world. And seeing that - actually seeing and feeling it - doesn' seem to have to have changed anything. It also seems to have changed everything.

Who knows where this is headed? But it is exciting.

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