The Zen Novice finished his first meal at the monastery. Anxious to begin his journey to enlightenment he asked his Master “Now What?” The Master replied, “Now wash your bowl.”
Michael, Can We Talk?
Michael, my dear, we have to talk. No, I didn’t say “Tawk” I said “Talk.” Seriously, have you noticed something? It’s getting crowded around here. It’s like you’re running out of room. It almost feels cramped. Why is that? I think you know.
The last time you sat down to practice mindfulness meditation, before you settled onto your meditation cushion, you left kind of a mess. Your practice space was dusty and cluttered with books and papers. Your shoes were left higgly-piggly by the door. There was a half-finished cup of tea and a half-finished water glass on the kitchen counter. They had been there for some time. Your coat was thrown on the couch, an old newspaper, half-read, on the table.
Never mind that these things are destined to confront your wife, who as we know prefers it tidy. I got the impression that you were in a hurry to meditate. I thought meditation was about slowing down, being where you are. How can you be in a hurry to be where you are, I ask?
I know, in your tradition, there is talk of “emptiness” and even “oneness.” In your rush, maybe you understood this to suggest an experience that transcends the mundane. But doesn’t oneness mean that you and your world are connected? Speaking practically, what is there to be “one” with? If it’s your experience as it is, moment-to-moment, that experience has to include your stuff, which as I said, is everywhere.
When people think of a meditator, they think of precision, simplicity, and tidiness. This could be a kind of affectation. Don’t worry; you’re not suffering from it! But seriously, we’re not talking about fake, self-conscious solemnity as you sip your tea and wash your cup.
Mind and Matter
Paying attention to the environment around you reflects a meditator’s understanding. If mind and matter are connected somehow, and changing mind can change how we experience matter, changing matter should also have an impact on mind. Isn’t that the point of art? Why not art in everyday life?
OK, maybe your Mom hesitated to tell you to clean your room. Maybe she didn’t want to upset you. But if you are going to pretend to study the nature of reality, how things are, then you might as well begin by relating to reality, at least the one in front of you.
If you leave your stuff around, sooner or later, someone is going to have to pick up after you. The problem with leaving a mess is that it considers others, but in a funny way. I don’t know how to break it to you, but cleaning up after you may not be the world’s most noble profession. I ask you, can washing your teacup be the best use of someone’s time?
What’s that, you “don’t need a lecture right now”? You’re “already struggling to love yourself.” “Why the negative tone”, you ask? Michael dear, have you seen the detritus you’ve left in your wake? Everywhere you go, there is a little piece of you left behind — a coffee cup, a tissue, a blanket, a half-read piece of mail, you and I both know this is just the beginning of the list.
Expanding Your Universe
Leaving your stuff everywhere is like hanging a “this is my space” sign everywhere. It is the expanding universe theory, except that YOU are the universe. You are expanding. The result is smaller and smaller spaces for other people to fit themselves into. It is the phenomenon of overpopulation of one.
But you say, “look at my responsibilities, there isn’t time for every tea cup. If I go there, I’ll never look up, I’ll never have time to do the important things I need to do!” Which urgent project is this? What’s that? “Helping others–for example”?
Now let me get this straight, you are saving the world and the first step on that journey is to leave something for someone else to clean up. OK, it’s possible, very possible that leaving a mess is the beginning of a very meaningful and successful effort to help others. It is also, however, suggestive of a different kind of journey. One that has you at the center, and others on the edge — with a trash can in their hand.
Of course, there is a whole other way to include people in your world. You could welcome them into a space that allows them to relax. A place that gives them room to relax. If space is a commodity (since you treat it that way), why not offer it? Why not make room? If you give them room, maybe others can learn to help themselves. That would be one less person who needs your help. Maybe they in turn can help others, even you. Wouldn’t that be in the interest of your expanding universe?
A Souvenir of Mind
The other thing about the half finished cup of tea you left on the counter for three days – I know it meant something to you. Why else would you leave it there?
I’ll tell you what it meant. It was a heart-warming reminder of you. It isn’t really a cup of tea. It’s a souvenir of your mind. In fact, it’s a thought. A big thought, a little one, a half-finished one. You and your thought got attached or it scared you. That’s why it’s still there. You don’t really want to say goodbye to your thought. If you do, you’d be lonely. You want a long goodbye, a three-day goodbye.
Thoughts keep you company. They remind you you’re here. If there weren’t thoughts for a minute, how would you locate yourself? You’d be lost. That would be space. In space no one can hear you scream, they say. In this case, the teacup will hear you. Your 3-day old teacup is a little shrine. In your quiet way, you worship it.
In fact, the stuff you leave around helps you find yourself. When someone calls you and asks, “Where are you?” you can just say, “Oh, I’m about a foot from the laundry pile.” There, question answered. No need to account for yourself further.
Thoughts of course, come and go. They may return, but they are always interrupted, and there are gaps between them. Are you afraid of that space between thoughts? Maybe that’s why you are always rushing, leaving half-finished stuff everywhere as landmarks.
I have news for you. There is no way to go back. There is no way to return to the tea you enjoyed three days ago. No way to have exactly the thought you thought you had. It is all gone. Like writing on water as they say. Wouldn’t it be more elegant if the water were clean?
Michael, it would be good to finish one thing properly. Even a cup of tea. It’s modest, but it would bode well for the people you’re supposed to look after. Sometimes cleaning up gets a bad rap. It’s OCD; it’s what maids do; it involves touching unclean things; it’s holding on to formality. Those are all excuses. Cleaning up is doing one thing at a time. It takes courage. Cleaning up is letting go.
“OK,” you say, “I’ve cleaned up a bit. It looks nicer. It feels a bit better. To be honest though, kind of liked it the old way. It was more relaxed. This feels a bit oppressive, sort of puritan or something. And anyway, now what?”
“Now what?” did you say? This is a very good question. Why don’t you just relax with this question? Making the space tidy allows for this question. When the space is a mess, there is no room for “Now”. It is as if Now were looking for somewhere to land and couldn’t find it. The space was too crowded.
This “Now” is your “Now.” When you left stuff everywhere you crowded out others, but you also crowded out your “Now”. You thought you were expanding, relaxing, but really, there was no more room for your experience. It was getting squeezed out. To be “one with everything” there has to be space. There has to be Now. Now that you’ve tidied up a bit, there is room. “Room for what?” You ask? Room for everything.
Editor’s Note: Dear Reader, don’t be alarmed. Anyone who knows Mr. Greenleaf well knows that he talks to himself. Sometimes I overhear voices coming from his office here at Samadhi Cushions and peek in (yes, it’s a little cluttered in there) just to see who he’s with. More often then not, he’s alone. It used to make me sad, now I’m used to it. Remember, there is a way for your meditation cushions not to be a living record of every substance they’ve ever encountered. The Deluxe Zafu and Deluxe Zabuton come with washable cushion covers.
Yes…also, sometimes Mr. Greenleaf writes his own “editor’s note” — Ed.