Tuesday, February 22, 2011

You Don't Have to Do Anything

I talk to my baby a lot. I tell him what I’m doing and why, essentially narrating the day and its activities.

The other day we were in the kitchen and I told him why I was at the sink. “I have to wash the dishes,” I said.

And then I considered that statement for a moment, and corrected myself. “I am washing the dishes,” I told him.

Does this distinction make sense? Does it seem important to you? I have decided that it is, and here’s why.

You can go through life thinking of things as “have-tos,” or you can do things out of a place of consciousness, where you know that you are the one deciding to do something, and that it is intrinsically worth doing.

I do not pretend to know much about Buddhism, but I imagine this is how a Buddhist would approach the dishes. It is a way of right-living and right-thinking, to do things that some might think of as chores or burdens as simply part of living a right, responsible life.

Do you have to wash the dishes? No, I don’t suppose you do. After all, you could leave them to putrefy in the sink, developing a nice crust of mold. Now, most of us don’t want to have that in our kitchens, and of course we like to have clean plates to eat off of, so we wash the dishes. But we do not have to. We could make a different choice. (I think I might have made this choice in college. But I digress.)

Anyway, once you remove the “have-to” from washing the dishes, the action seems a lot less burdensome. You want clean dishes to eat off of, so you wash them. It’s a decision, and it’s one that you do because you have decided to care for both the dish and yourself.

You are respecting the process of living, which in a nutshell is this: Order --> Entropy --> Chaos --> Action --> Order. Repeat. This is our cycle, our system. It just is.

It is why our teeth get dirty, and we brush them. It is why our grass gets long, and we mow it. It is why our minds get cluttered and we go to church or yoga and we clear them. It is why there are toys all over the house and then we pick them up and put them away. And if there is a day where you would like to get to the dishes or to yoga but you can’t because life intervenes? No matter. If it is important, you will get to it another day.

We recently bought a new car to accommodate our growing family, and not two weeks after we brought it home from the dealership, there was a tiny chip in the bumper. This upset my husband. “What’s the point?” he said, exasperated.

And then I remembered this:

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

- Mark Epstein
Thoughts Without a Thinker

And I told him: “The car is already in a salvage yard. It’s already rusted and smashed. But while it is ours, we do all we can to take care of it and enjoy it and be responsible for it. Because it is the right thing to do.”

I am no philosopher, haven’t studied it, but I think this is what is meant when morals are discussed. You wash the dishes. You take care of your car. You take responsibility for that which you own and those who are dependent on you and for your actions.

It’s clear many people don’t do what they have to. Or what they should. They don’t choose a right-thinking, right-living life. “Who cares?” they say. “Life is short, I’m out to get mine while the getting is good and I’m young and life feels good.” But there is a denial of something in this approach, a nihilism.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for taking on the burdens of the world. (See my post about why you shouldn’t even try here.) Rather, I’m advocating that you alter your attitude toward what you are already doing, such that you don’t feel burdened by what is the way of living. No more “have-tos.”

And, by so doing, you enjoy everything more. You feel more serenity. You appreciate the process. You slow down. You notice more. Look at the way the bubbles dance across the surface of the glass as you wash it. See the universe here in your sink full of dishes. You no more have to wash these dishes than the universe had to bring you into existence. But you are here, and so are the dishes, so why not make the most of it?

Things fall apart, things come together, things fall apart once more. Of course.

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