From Still Point – November 2010 – Mowing the Lawn, Weeding the Mind
When I volunteered for work practice at Dharma Rain Zen Center, I really didn’t know what I was getting into. The thought was simple enough. Gratitude. I wanted to give back. I had just become a member and felt (as I do now) that the this temple gives me so much. I wanted to give back in a way more “real” than having some cash withdrawn from my checking account each month. I wanted to put my hands on the temple, work to make it visibly cleaner, more beautiful.
“What sort of work do you have in mind?” the Shuso asked. Strapped to computers at work, I was not especially interested in office work. “Some kind of manual work. Cleaning. Something with my hands. I can push a broom with the best,” I responded jokingly. My time limited to about an hour a week, I met with a senior priest who recommended mowing the lawn on Sundays after Dharma talk. That’s when the trouble began.
I’ve mown plenty of lawns, the technical aspects pretty much mastered in my early teens. It was bringing “practice” to “work practice” that was the problem. OK. I’ve got the lawn mower. OK. I’m mowing the lawn. What about the practice? I found my mind wandering everywhere but the lawn in the beginning. I was parallel processing, day-dreaming, stuff coming up about new relationships at the temple as people pass by, issues at home and work, occasionally cursorily paying attention to the lawn. My own mental garbage started coming up, sometimes intensely. This made mowing the lawn less than a rewarding experience, at least at first glance.
For example, I recall Sangha members sitting on the front steps, chatting and laughing. In the midst of mowing the lawn, I would suddenly start feeling “left out,” farther away from, not closer to the Sangha. A lot of my internal edges started to become apparent. Sometimes, I might feel like I wanted to be seen and appreciated in this work, like a child wanting a brownie for good effort. Frustrated with all this mental garbage, “work practice” seemed not to be working out at all. After a while though, I began to appreciate these edges and the insights that they were helping me to see. Also, I began to see the struggle just to “do one thing completely” as immensely valuable. “When mowing the lawn, just mow the lawn,” I would tell myself and I would start bringing attention to this “one thing.” Mowing the grass, weeding the lawn, I realized I was weeding my mind, that this was practice.
One day, one of the Abbots walked by and said, “this is just some grass that grows around here.” Taken aback, I felt “how could this be?” I am taking good care of this lawn, my sweat and tears pouring into the work and it is “just some grass that grows around here”? I took offense at first. Slow on the uptake, I missed an opportunity to engage the teacher.
Time has passed and I find I can focus on the work at hand. I get better at doing “one thing completely.” Stuff still comes up. I note it. I appreciate it, file it away to work on later. I return to my work, like returning to my breath when my mind wanders in the Zendo. The abbot was right. The lawn is “just some grass that grows around here.” It is also, surprisingly, “the field of practice.” So, the grass grows and I mow the lawn. Weeds grow and they are pulled. The Way is always right in front of me, my Mind immaculate from the beginning. I mow and weed. Is even a speck of dust stirred?