'Caretaking Practice'May 12, 2009
by Richard Lawton
photo by Schäferle
Outer change can be quick, but inner change takes time and patience
The outer circumstances of my life have shifted in some very obvious ways over the past few months, but at this point I’d say that the more inner transformative change I’ve been trying to nurture is progressing less noticeably and far more gradually. I find this a little discouraging at times, but I really shouldn’t be so surprised. The habits and thought patterns that I’m trying to change and free myself of are the result of many years of conditioning and repetition.
And while being able to spend more time in solitude in the mountains and engaging in practice at the monastery are much more conducive to fostering this inner change, it still comes down to continuous effort on my part...continuous effort without the need for immediate gratification or proof that it’s “paying off.” This has proven to be challenging for me, since I’m largely a product of our “results-oriented” culture.
Each day during retreats at the monastery, there is a period of “caretaking practice.” Retreatants are assigned tasks as a normal part of taking care of the buildings and grounds and each other. Things like slicing vegetables in the kitchen, working in the garden, cleaning the bathrooms, and stuffing envelopes. It takes place after morning meditation, and is conducted in silence as a way of enabling one to take one’s meditation practice off of the cushion and into action.
Two mornings during last week’s retreat, I was given the job of applying a lime and water mixture to the inside walls of the straw and bale-constructed hermitage up the mountain from the main monastery building. I was shown how to mix the lime with the water from the stream flowing next to the hermitage, and brush it on the inside walls to add more sealant protection. Unlike paint, it was thin and watery. And though it brushed on wet, after it dried I couldn’t really tell that I had put on another coat at all. So I had to pay much closer attention to the pattern of my brush strokes and not rely on visual evidence of where my brush had been.
“It’s like zazen (meditation),” the work leader said, “you don’t see any evidence that it’s having any effect after one, two (or even more) sitting periods. It’s only after doing it repeatedly over a long period of time (months? years? lifetimes?) that you notice that things look different.”
Even though there was no visual change in the wall after applying a coat, my bucket was soon empty. So I’d make another batch and keep brushing it on with the faith that it was actually doing some good.
It seems that, if I pay close enough attention, the right teachings often appear in unexpected ways just when I need them. Even though my schedule and surroundings had changed over the past few months, I was getting a bit discouraged to see that “I” had not really changed. That sense of discouragement has been transformed into a sense of patience after last week’s retreat, though, in which I was subtly reminded to just keep applying myself meticulously until my bucket is finally empty.