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Doing my Job

An essay on self, not-self, and dirty tables

by Jessica Swanson

On the last full day of practice, Upasika Debbie cracked a joke only card-carrying Buddhist meditators would find hilarious, “I came to the Thanksgiving Retreat for the jhanas, and all I got was this lousy cold.”

Last month, along with several others from Portland Friends of the Dhamma, I attended this annual 10-day silent meditation retreat led by Luang Por Pasanno. It was the first time I had attended this event, and it had been more than five years and two kids born since the last time I went on retreat. When I returned home, people asked me questions like, “Was it hard?” (Yes.) “Did you go a little crazy?” (Yes.) “You didn’t talk AT ALL?” (Well….)

The truth is I did break noble silence about four days into the retreat. I had this wonderful “yogi job,” which involved putting away the breakfast food and wiping down the tables. Ironically, as a mother of two small children, most of what I do at home is work in the kitchen and clean up after meals — complaining all the while. But this job was really quite pleasant and I looked forward to it each day. After all, there was very little else to “do,” so my job took on a prominent place in my day.

Dining-Hall-Siloam-Retreat-Center

One day, another yogi came in and started wiping down the tables. MY tables. Had the whole world gone mad?

I walked over to her in anjali and emphatically whispered, “YOU’RE DOING MY JOB.” It was kind of like when I ask my son to use his inside voice and he just whisper-yells. In fact, it was exactly like that. She explained with her brightest yogi smile that she was supposed to wipe off the tables and sweep. Which was completely untrue, because it was MY JOB. I told her I’d ask the person who trained me about it, which I did, and it went like this, me whisper-yelling all the while: “THAT YOGI IS DOING MY JOB.”

The wise kitchen manager Monika encouraged me, “Just let her do it.” My response was to sink into despair. If another retreatant could just come in and TAKE MY JOB, then everything had obviously devolved into chaos. I slunk out, dejected.

I wanted my job back so I devised a plan with a back up plan and another just in case. I would bring the intruder-yogi to my posted job description and have her read it. Or I would work really fast, so the chore would be done by the time she appeared to wipe down my tables. Or I would check in with the other kitchen manager to see where things had gone so horribly, horribly wrong.

Yes, you see, I did go a little crazy. But I acted on none of these impulses. I just waited, and sat, and walked, and chanted, and did my job. Intruder-yogi (who, of course, turned out to be quite a lovely person) came again and wiped down a few tables, then she came back one more time, eventually rechecking her job description and quietly re-ordered her day.

By day eight, the whole kerfuffle was a thing of the past. And by staying quiet, and going about my business with a tiny shred of patience, I saw the thing I was supposed to see: my own mind.

I saw how I had clung to that job, how much I had made it MINE, how hard I was willing to hang on to it, and how much it stirred up. Funny enough, it brought about the same results I get when trying to get out of the very same job back at home.

So there is greed, and there is aversion. If we are lucky — if the conditions are right — we get to see them arise, and then by the laws of nature, pass away.

Unlike Debbie, fortunately I didn’t catch the very aggressive Thanksgiving retreat cold. And I can’t claim to have experienced deep absorptive meditation states. But I got see again and again the beneficial results of not acting on unwholesome states of mind.

And now, back in the world, this simple insight is making all the difference.