by Yin Cai Shakya
I remember my first apartment. It was a fourth-floor walk-up which I shared with three feral cats - to whom my mother, a lady who has a definite way with cats, had taught "social skills." At the time of my eviction, the place looked as if "Diamond" David Lee Roth had been using it as a venue for releasing demons.
Most bachelors in their late teens and early twenties have the same effect on apartments. It's one of the reasons for Security Deposits.
Fast-forward several years, to a point in time suspended in the not-too-distant past. My wife and I agreed to divorce 'amicably.' This decision initiated the chain of events which led me, inexorably, to - you guessed it ha-ha - another apartment. My soon-to-be ex-wife found the place.
The apartment is the third floor converted attic of a large house that was built a hundred odd years ago. My landlady, who truly is amiable, allowed me to keep my dog. The space had been transformed into a cozy studio apartment; replete with a large living area that could accommodate a bed; writing desk; comfortable chair; and a couch if the tenant possessed the engineering know-how needed to navigate the tight, right-angled, low-ceiling staircase. There is also a little kitchen that is described officially as "quaint." It holds a sink, stove, and fridge. Finally, there is a bathroom that has a curious adjoining room which reminds me of Dr. Who's Tardis. It has a tiny door that would seem to lead into in a tiny room; but when you waddle through it, BOOM! You find a space that could house the Library of Congress. I haven't quite figured it out, yet.
From the outside, the third floor vaguely resembles a pagoda in the way the windows jut out from the slanted roof. It had everything. Mystery, space, cleanliness, nobody scraping the floor above me, and an exterior that seemed exotic. I knew that This Would Be The Place - no matter how disoriented and strange I felt inside at the time.
As I see it, a man in the midst of a divorce has two options open to him. He can spend every possible moment with his friends, going to bars and sporting events - or better yet - going to bars with big screen plasma TVs on which sporting events are broadcasted. Women flock to these bars in order to meet men - and if you are one of the men who is met, sooner or later that quick rebound tonic will turn into a congealed "item," and later a marriage, and then of course a house from which he, sooner or later will once-again find himself 'amicably' separated from in kind-of a living-example of The Bhavacakra, if you will.
Or, he can take the advice cons are given: "You do the time - don't let the time do YOU." And, seeing the inevitable end to the previously stated option, he can bite that bullet and try to find an answer to the question Zen masters insist that a novice ask himself: "Who am I?" This question is not easy to answer and so anyone who takes this option needs all the peace, quiet, free, and uninterrupted time he can get. Answering the question, "Who am I?" can only be accomplished as a spiritual Quest. He doesn't have to be cloistered, but he pretty much has to live like a monk in one of the more liberal monasteries.
Being that I am a man who is tired of his own history of learning the hard way that the Road to Hell is The Path of Least Resistance, I opted for the latter. I knew I couldn't run from myself or my problems forever, and that sooner or later I would have to eliminate all those things which served no other purpose whatsoever than to distract me from dealing with myself and those afore-mentioned problems.
Another piece of good advice is "Don't have friends. Just be friendly to everyone." Friends are a distraction. It's easy and usually pleasant to be distracted. I'd always made a habit of it. Maybe that was the root of my problems. Train wrecks are a distraction, too.
At any rate, I found myself doing what my father did, and what a lot of men who find themselves in my particular predicament do. I got Religion. Or more accurately, I got more Religion. As a married man, my daily dose of Zen was rather like taking a baby aspirin for a tooth ache. After fulfilling all my domestic obligations, that was about all the time I had available for my practice.
As I got settled in my new place, alone, I found that the tooth ache had gone away and the baby aspirin was a gateway drug to the big stuff that opened the doors of perception for me. My Zen practice-dosage had markedly increased. I was hooked up to a goddam IV.
Imagine the Bodhisattva Guan Yin in a white nurse's uniform coming in, every hour on the hour, to remove the empty bag from the little metal hook and replace it with a fresh one. All day, every day. Such it was, and still is.
I'll share with you one of the many Little Lessons I've learned, during the time spent so far in my new address. It involves soap. But first, a bit more background.
At first, loneliness crept into my daily life. It was a problem I had to work on. I happened to be standing in front of the sink, preparing to wash my dishes. "Right Mindfulness is a good a place as any to start, I guess..." I said to myself. And as I often had done before, I tried to point 100 percent of my concentration dead-ahead at the task at hand. I began to see the activity of dishwashing in a detached, Zen way. It was rather like the little thought exercise which Ernest Wood prescribes in his book "Yoga," whereby one sits down with a sheet of paper and picks a subject, any subject (the example Ernest Wood uses is a cow). A wheel, like a bicycle wheel with a hub and spokes, is mentally drawn with the name of the subject written on the hub. Then, with the mind kept on the subject, every thought that rises about the subject is written on one of the spokes.
In a similar way, I thought to myself, "I am washing the dishes."
And then I thought, "Why am I washing the dishes?"
And then answer, "Because if you leave dirty dishes in the sink, they start to smell." Mentally I recorded that on one of the spokes.
And then I'd return to my original thought, "I am washing the dishes."
Followed by another "Why am I washing the dishes?"
And then, "Because the kitchen must be kept clean, or else it becomes a haven for germs."
And then immediately back to the "I am washing the dishes" all over again.
On and on it went, thinking of the subject and then branching-out, just a little bit, to another aspect of that subject, and then back to the original subject again. Over and over.
Thich Nhat Hanh says that this Mindfulness is, in-effect, the essence of the Zen practice. And based upon what I've learned from the work of Ernest Wood, Patanjali, and most-importantly my own recent experience, I agree.
Curiously, as I held up the small plate I'd been washing, to dry it with the dish towel, I thought, "I am drying this small plate. Why am I drying this small plate?" I saw, intuitively, in my mind's eye, in a manner which I can only describe as "superimposed over what I'm actually seeing with my own two eyes" the Process by which my hunger arose, followed by the need to eat, followed by the preparing of a spinach omelet, followed by the consuming of the spinach omelet, followed by the washing of the skillet, spatula, fork and finally the small plate which I was then drying. And it was as if I saw each and every one of these component parts, these moments, together, in place of the Now moment, which they, in effect, created as well as the Now moment, too. Moments during which my body existed as part of it, but I was completely gone.
I was completely awestruck, dumbfounded and stricken with what I can only describe as "otherworldly joy," all at the same time.
Imagine for a moment if you had the ability to take the reality which you see around you, and not only view it in pristine crystal-clarify, but also take it and rewind, fast-forward, and pause it and any element therein, like you can with a movie in your DVD.
This is what happens when the contemplation of a singular moment and all of its component parts leads the believer into transcending his or her own ego.
"How wonderful! How mysterious! I chop wood. I carry water." Yes, it is. And dish washing, too.
Imagine now that you dwell in a living space that is engineered so meticulously that it provides you with the jumping off point you need to exist in this state of being, Then do this exercise all the time.
I'll give you a moment to let that sink-in.
When you succeed in keeping your mind on the chosen subject, everything becomes radiant. Everything becomes a splendid gift from The Almighty. Nothing is as trivial as it appears and yet, to those outside looking-in, you're as normal as they come. And that, incidentally, is how you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you're the Real Thing. You have melted into your Buddha Self.
And it's happening every millisecond of ever second of every minute of every day. The wonder is that while it is right there in front of us, we usually miss it completely.
What does this have to do with apartments? Well, I'll tell you.
Zen Buddhism would be a useless religion if it didn't have practical applications which could make our lives easier. I can remember trying to scrub out the bathtub in my old apartment. It was a mess. Thick scum from the bath soap I'd been using would appear, seemingly over-night, "as miraculously as mushrooms ... or Gods" as the Buddha says in The Diamond Sutra.
It was an irritating pain-in-the ass. Cleaning it up took time away from other things I'd rather be doing on a Saturday afternoon.
One evening I arrived home from the gym, took my dog for a walk, and returned home, sweaty and dirty. So I stepped into the shower, turned it on, and began "my ablutions" thinking, "I am taking a shower," and then, "Why am I taking a shower?" and then, "Because it's good to have a clean body, I am taking a shower and am cleaning myself with this mildly-scented liquid body soap..."
"...a liquid body soap which I happily noted didn't seem to be leaving any soap scum in my tub! This was incredible!"
That was my joyous realization that somehow I'd managed to, unknowingly, make my own living environment more peaceful and pleasant by using a liquid body soap which eliminated one onerous household chore.
But wait, there's more... I began Letting Go.
"I am taking a shower, in a clean tub, a clean tub in which I can also wash my laundry with a little bit of Woolite, instead of taking it to the coin laundry down the street!"
On and on it went, the inspiration which came from Mindfulness, but seemed to come from out of nowhere. This leads up to the important point of this essay. When we're spending time at home, doing useful things and being Mindful of while we're doing, we're not out doing stupid, counterproductive things as many of us are in the destructive habit of doing.
I can't go and run up a big bar tab if I'm completely enthralled with either the process of washing my own dishes or working on a watercolor painting. It just can't happen.
And what's more, these little Illuminations/Revelations/Discoveries/Intuitive Flashes make it far easier for us to see ourselves for who we really are: the byproduct of a very complex interplay of everything that happens in the Universe. This, of course, weakens our Ego, in gentle, divine ways and sets the stage for our own Enlightenment and experience of the divine.