This month’s article was inspired by an unusual retreat at the Monastery, “Living in Joy: A Zen and Christian Perspective.”
In one of the workshops, we explored the beliefs and assumptions that keep us from living in Joy. This story was used to illustrate one of those beliefs.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.
She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” --Luke 10:38-42
How many of us can identify with Martha?
There are so many things we’re worried and upset by…
the latest disturbing political news,
what the neighbors did to the car
the fact that my taxes are late
that unexpected big expense
the family member who might get laid off
the baby that is not sleeping
the fight I had with my teenage son
the bonus tied to the performance report
There is so much to do and so little time to do it!
returning phone calls, arranging appointments,
emails, texts, the plumber,
the PTA meeting,
picking up the kids, exercise, meditation, practice commitments,
work meetings, preparing dinner,
shopping for groceries....
With all that going on, who in their right mind can stop for a moment of joy and metaphorically “sit at the feet of the Lord and listen”?
How many of us are bamboozled into believing that there will always be time for joy later, or that spiritual well-being is earned after doing the hard work of living?
If we look at this story from the dualistic world of opposites, the choice is to be Mary OR Martha. Jesus’s words could be interpreted to mean that Mary’s way is the right way: escape from the world and spend time on spiritual practice.
Did you hear a voice whisper something along the lines of “Really? Who has the luxury to do that?” “What about my life?” “Isn’t dropping all that I’m responsible for to run off to ‘sit at the Lord’s feet’ downright irresponsible?”
But perhaps Jesus was pointing at a more radical perspective, most articulately encapsulated in our favorite Zen quote:
Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes. --Alan Watts
Is it possible that God, the Divine Mother, Buddha Nature, or the Intelligence That Animates is peeling the potatoes?
If we pay close attention, do we notice that it’s only when we are identified with the conditioned orientation that creates the illusion of separation between
self and other,
me and you,
this and that,
God and me,
joyful non-activity and stressful work
that the conflict between being Martha or Mary arises?
As Jesus points out, we only need to do one thing to have a “Mary” experience. When we stop attending to the process of suffering that creates the illusory world of “the many things I have to worry about,” we’re “sitting at the feet of the Lord” while we do the many things!
The Practice adage that points to this is “Not What, But How.”
When we cease to listen to the conversation in conditioned mind, we’re able to see the world as God, to see each task as an act of worship, to be filled with the joy of Intelligence knowing itself as it takes care of the laundry, pays the bills, and peels the potatoes!
For the next 48 hours, practice being Martha as Mary. Going about daily tasks, receive the experience of the Intelligence That Animates peeling the potatoes.