A small piece of training
We’ve been working on making our buildings more energy-efficient. As part of this, we had an on-demand water heater put in to the kitchen at the Zendo building (the main temple building). I didn’t anticipate how long it would take to get hot water, nor how much the water pressure would be decreased in the process. I went to mop the kitchen floor during temple cleanup time before Saturday breakfast, and found that it took quite a while to get water for the mop bucket, and it never did get hot, nor did I have time to fill the bucket. I mopped the floor with cold water, and less of that than I would have wanted ideally. It worked all right, I suppose, but wasn’t what I would consider optimal.
We’re going to have a week-long retreat in March, and I have been told that I will be assistant cook for that retreat. I began to think of filling tubs for dishwashing at every meal, general cleanup, filling kettles for cooking, and thought I’d better say something.
So I brought it up at breakfast, expecting a response like, yes we’re working on that, or I didn’t realize, let’s try to fix that. Instead the response I got was that this is all part of increasing water use efficiency, and is evidently an intended outcome. I was aghast. I found myself feeling pretty frustrated, and heard myself say with some agitation, “we’re going to be heating water on the stove!”
As I said it, I could hear the anger in my voice, and could tell that I was getting carried away. “Too much,” I thought, and started to try to end the conversation. At that moment, Gyokuko (co-abbot and one of the teachers) said, “That’s enough. That’s a little over the top,” which verified what I had just realized. I was able to say “sorry,” and drop it right there.
A trivial matter, maybe, and a lot of people wouldn’t see that I had done anything so terrible, nor my apology as anything so wonderful. A few may think I should have stuck to my guns. In any case, there are some significant things about this incident.
One is that last year such an exchange would have been devastating to me – in fact, a few similar exchanges did devastate me – sent me into a tailspin of depression that lasted a few days or more. This one occupied my mind for a day or so, and many feelings came up, but none of them overwhelmed me. I was able to stay with the incident in a way that was actually useful – paying attention to what happened, the source of my anger, honoring my emotions without being ruled by them.
Second, I was gratified that my perception was congruent with that of the teachers. Gyokuko confirmed my reading of the situation rather than pointing out something I hadn’t seen yet. That tells me that I’m beginning to get a glimpse of what we’re doing here.
Third, we’re taught to bow in these situations. That embodies contrition. This time, it involved saying “sorry” and letting go of my own position. What I’ve done in the past was either to defend myself by going on the offensive (which I had started to do here), or flip over into self-blame, feeling humiliated, not only that I made a mistake, but that someone saw me make a mistake and furthermore commented on it in a public way (our breakfast table generally has anywhere from 6-14 people, mostly residents but also other members of the lay community who join us). This used to send me into a downward spiral that made me feel bad and ultimately made it impossible to do anything with it, leaving me defeated and unable to take any kind of responsibility for it at all (feeling like it’s all hopeless).
I was able to realize that what happened there was that I had an expectation that didn’t get met, and then I took a position and was trying to defend it. That put me into a rigid space and didn’t allow me to move with changing conditions. We say about anger that it involves contriving reality for the self. What I was able to do over the next day was to see that this is what I was doing, and that I need to be able to work things as they really are. It took a while, and with practice, maybe I’ll get quicker at it. The response I was able to come up with is the culmination of a lot of work over the last two years. I may fall into this same trap again, though Kyogen (my teacher) assures me that once you’ve found this kind of space, experienced this kind of freedom, it’s easier to return to it.
The work continues, of course. And there are certainly plenty of other lessons to learn. One of the joys of this training is that it’s never really finished. Training involves several aspects. Explicit teaching – dharma talks, reading of sutras and commentaries, face-to-face meetings with the teachers. Daily life exchanges like the one I’ve just described. Long conversations with fellow practitioners exploring the roots of these kinds of responses to situations that come up. Plus hours of sitting meditation.