“I love really sharp pencils,” was the reasonable, intelligent, dare we say enlightened comment. This was followed, incomprehensibly to me, by “but I hate to sharpen them.” Seemed a ripe moment for some Zen mastery, and so rather than going with the “What?” that could have betrayed my response, I chose some drawing out and clarifying.
“So, what I hear you saying is that while you love sharp pencils you hate sharpening them. Did I get that right? Can you say more about that?”
What I learned is that those two perspectives didn’t seem odd or conflicting to the person holding them. To me, grateful to have taken advantage of an opportunity to be informed, it seemed like all the causes of suffering, the ending of suffering, and the practice that ends suffering all rolled into one simple sentence.
How often do we find ourselves in that position? I like having money but I hate having to earn it. I love being fit but hate having to exercise. I enjoy eating well but hate cooking. I like clean dishes but hate clean-up. I want friends but I hate socializing. I dream of travel but hate doing the research.
What are the ingredients of this ego-induced suffering stew?
Perhaps one place to explore is the focus of this year’s yearlong retreat, the relationship between doing and being. Ego is, as we know, doing. It’s not that ego actually does anything (it, in fact, cannot “do”), but it talks about doing and takes credit for doing, as in, “I made a presentation at work this morning.” Upon examination, we realize that ego’s “contribution” to the presentation was stoking anxiety and worry, going over the same ten sentences in conditioned mind endlessly; distracting, dreading, postponing preparation; and during the presentation doing everything possible to get the human being doing the presenting to forget place and plan; to project disinterest and/or disapproval on the audience; to agonize over the outcome; and in general not be present enough to know what’s actually happening so that when ego offers the assessment the human will be unable to refute the judgment.
While ego strenuously resists being—it does not even appear to exist when we simply are—even though ego is a “doing” rather than a being, it claims to dislike doing…regularly. What ego actually dislikes is when the focus is not on its doing (focusing on what’s wrong, resisting, procrastinating, etc.), but rather on the “real doing” of present participation.
Here is the pencil I enjoy using. It has become blunted in service to me. I now have the opportunity to appreciate it, care for it, serve it by sharpening it to pencil perfection. What is ego’s reaction? No. I don’t want to. I don’t feel like it. I don’t like doing that.
Really? Is it hard to do? Not a bit. But what is hard for ego is to have attention on enjoyment and appreciation—Life “activities”—rather than on ego’s complaining.
Thousands of times each day we have an opportunity to practice this. I can love and serve, be present to and appreciate each item in my world that cares for me—pots, pans, cups, glasses, the toaster and tea pot, the stove and the sink, the shower, the chair, the bed, sheets, blankets, pillows, the phone, computer, the car… Too much to acknowledge and we haven’t even considered the birds, the squirrels, the deer, cats and dogs, trees and flowers, the sky, clouds… oh, my!
What might we see in this? The odds are good that if I can’t love sharpening my pencil, impossible-to-calculate amounts of love will be absent from my life. Of course I’m meant not to know this is happening. Most fiendish of all is that I will be made to believe the choices to reject presence, gratitude, and love are mine. After all, aren’t I the unpleasant, grouchy, judgmental person who hates something as simple as sharpening a pencil? But why should I care about that? I don’t like sharpening pencils and no one can make me! I will sharpen the pencil because I have to but no one can make me like doing it.
Oh, what a triumph for egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate!