Entering into Joy seems to me a miracle of a change in perception. Practice transforms the times when a reality seemed grim, closed-in and inescapable into a wide-open experience, full of possibilities. In those moments of awareness, reality changes just as surely as if someone had waved a magic wand. With practice over time, I learn how to wave that magic wand myself. This is a story about a time when Monastery life taught me a way to do it.
As a visiting monk I was assigned the recurring task of cleaning the porches and everything on them. One afternoon the porches became speckled with mud and I was looking forward to the opportunity to mop them. When I opened my work meditation note, however, I was asked to wipe down the furniture.
I thought, “What? How can this be? The floor is a mess! I just wiped down the furniture a few days ago. What a waste of time! This request must be a mistake.” Blessedly, there wasn’t time to leave a note about the mistake and get a response before the work period was over. So I started thoroughly wiping down a bench like I had been taught. After I finished my first bench, I could not notice even the slightest difference in the result. This was very upsetting. My effort was being wasted on a useless activity while something really important was being left undone! Ugh!
I was identified, of course. Conditioning had created a reality that was cruel, senseless and miserable. I felt like Hamlet, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. How could I escape?
Fortunately my desperation opened the way for a series of miracles. I remembered a quote by Thomas Kempis, “When thou countest almost all to be lost, then oftentimes the greatest gain of reward is close at hand.” There was hope even if conditioning said otherwise. I was opening myself to possibility.
Then another miracle happened. I remembered Cheri’s advice: The only reason I’m suffering is because egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate thinks that it should be different than what it is. OK, but what’s my alternative? I paused and the still small voice said Love.
At this point I was still pretty identified: “How in the world do I love wiping down chairs? It doesn’t feel pleasant or smell pleasant, I’m not producing any results that I care about and no one is going to notice my efforts. How can I love this?” Another miracle happened. It occurred to me that if I was the person who had made this bench, I would be a lot more interested in keeping it clean and pristine. This bench would be “my baby.” With that realization, the work became easier as I imagined having the love of the creator.
Before long, another thought dropped in. Being the creator is still a storyline that’s about “me.” Is there something deeper here? Well, this wood was once a tree and I love trees. Can I love equally the wood that the trees begat? Well, I can try. With that effort I become more interested in the process, going deeper still: Trees are alive but wood isn’t. Hmmm. Do I really know that this wood isn’t alive? The Buddha says that I can’t really know anything. Perhaps this wood is alive in a way I can’t perceive. If it were alive what would it want? It would want Love. Of course! It wants love just like I do.
With that awareness, I turned my attention to caring about the “well-being” of the furniture. There was no longer a desire to think about it because I was immersed in giving love, noticing the wood, the paint, the construction and care. And I began to feel the love from the furniture just as surely as if it were alive!
Wow! A virtuous circle of love and gratitude dissolved the illusion of separation. What was once a useless task filled with misery became a vital experience of caring. I wanted to clean and even caress every inch of that furniture and experience the opportunity to both give and receive. Amazingly, I was pretty much doing exactly what I was doing while miserable but now the experience was one of celebration.
And so, life with the Monastery showed me a way to enter into joy. I hope you each have your own opportunity, again and yet again.