Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent article about mindfulness gave me a laugh. “…in the Bay Area, I learned that rich locals liked to unwind at Buddhist monasteries in the hills, where, for a few thousand dollars, they could spend a weekend doing manual labor for the monks.” (“Mind Your Own Business,” Barbara Ehrenreich, The Babbler #27, pg. 70.)
Though far from rich, for two weeks in the 1980s, I was one of those who toiled in the fields of a Buddhist monastery in the Bay area. I did kitchen work, cutting up vegetables for soup, or I dug weeds in the garden with a rusty implement. What’s more, I rose at 6 a.m. each morning to meditate before heading downstairs to eat a bowl of bland porridge. The repetitive routine was itself a form of meditation meant to clear my mind.
I wasn’t surprised to learn from Ehrenreich’s article that meditation as a stress reliever is “no more effective in doing so than other interventions, such as muscle relaxation, medication or psychotherapy.” (Ibid pg. 73.)
It’s true. For me a few hours of daily writing is a meditation because it focuses my mind. To focus is to allow a mind/brain connection and silence is the river that permits ideas to flow to either shore.
When these two states are conjoined, the conscious and unconscious, insight is possible. No single map points the way to enlightenment, not civil laws or religious cannons. What matters is silence and focus.
And what is it we should look for in this state? What wisdom do we seek? After digging countless holes in monastery gardens, my answer is, we seek connection. Friends and family come first, of course. But ultimately, as sentient beings, we want to know how we connect to the universe and how it connects to us. Scientists ask this question with every study, as do philosophers with their arguments and artists with their passion.
Ehrenreich’s image of the rich digging holes in a monastery garden brings a smile to my lips, it’s true. “What fools these mortals be,” I think. (A Midsummer Nights Dream, lII,ii) And yet… and yet…. Didn’t Shakespeare show us the wisdom of fools?