Last night we got hit by a snowstorm. We watched as the snow accumulated over the course of the afternoon and into the evening, and I went to bed knowing—dreading—what I would inevitably find the next morning: feet of snow, and our car trapped from a night of snowplows passing by. This morning, even as I was sitting down for zazen, I was starting to psyche myself up for the work ahead, thinking about all the stuff I’d have to move to get to the shovel I haven’t used since last winter, wondering if I know which garbage bag in the basement holds my snow boots, cataloguing all the tasks that would be delayed so I could spend an hour or more digging out the car.
Some of that reaction, or chain of reactions, is about my temperament. I like schedules; I feel thrown off when something interrupts how I thought things would go. I also imagine myself as being constantly busy, so when a new task presents itself, it rarely feels as if I have the space for it. That time slot, whatever it is, has already been filled.
But the fact is, when I go outside and shovel the driveway, or when I stay late in the kitchen to clean the pots and pans, or when I pause to sweep the entryway, I love it. I love it. And when I say that, I don’t necessarily mean that I enjoy it—it’s not that my heart suddenly feels buoyant and I start singing. It’s not about joy. What I mean is simply this: there is a unique and particular clarity to doing what needs to be done.
“Work as practice” is not a new idea. It’s a cliché, in the Zen world at least, to talk about washing the dishes as practice in action, as a place to practice mindfulness. And it is—of course it is—just as anything can be. But what I want to point to is not the mindfulness part, not the slowing down and paying attention, though that part matters a lot. For today, I want to say that washing the dishes or shoveling the walk or picking up that jacket is practice not because of how it feels but because if you don’t do it, who will?
One of the monasteries where I trained in Japan never had more than a few monks at a time. Fifteen would have been a full house; more often, it was more like six or seven, and sometimes just three. When I first arrived there, I would notice that something was out of place, or that there was a mess to be cleaned up, or that an object needed repair, and I would think, “I wonder who will fix that.” Later that changed to “I should tell someone.” And finally it hit me: the person to tell was me. There was no one else. In that moment, I was as responsible for that temple as anyone ever had been in its six-hundred-year history. So I cleaned it up. I fixed it. I put it away.
This is the kind of realization that, in robes, feels profound, and for me it was. But my parents tried to teach me the same thing; it’s what I try to teach my kids. That fridge door isn’t going to close itself. It’s so simple, so basic, that we can miss how important it is.
So here’s the question: What, right now, needs doing? I don’t mean in the world—I mean where you are, right in front of you, today. I suspect you know the answer right away; for me, it’s a whole list. Notice how putting that thing off or walking around it or pretending it isn’t there feels, how the freedom of not doing it manifests as a burden. This may seem way overblown, but that resistance, the resistance you feel to doing the dishes that no one else will do and that will be in the sink until you do them because there is no one else—that, in this moment, is your resistance to your life. Notice the resentment you feel about having to do it, notice the control you’re trying to exercise by putting it off. Notice how that feels. It doesn’t feel right.
Then, wash the dishes, or whatever it is, and notice the sense of alignment. When I pick up the snow shovel, I put down the weight of my mind. I let go of the strain of pushing back. I can breathe.
Again: right now, where you are, what needs doing? Do that. And then open up. With the dishes done, where does that feeling go? It doesn’t go away (maybe I should have said that earlier). It never goes away. It just expands, so we see another need and another and another. We clean up another mess, reach out another hand, offer ourselves up, notice something more. This never ends—how could it? But we can stop fighting it.
It’s time. You can stop reading this. You know what you need to do.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.
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