Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Enjoyment of Not Enjoying Myself

    
     Since I arrived in New York, I've made a habit of calling my mother once a week to give her updates on how I'm doing.  It was during our last phone call that she said in a worried voice, "Honey, it doesn't sound like you are enjoying yourself very much".  Her words struck me as I hadn't realized that I'd been giving her that impression.  However, looking back I can definitely see why she said that.  I'd just completed a week of weeding raised garden boxes of herbs, planting blueberries, and mulching around newly planted trees in a humid ninety degree heat.  To add to this, my arms and chest were all covered in a massive heat rash which left me scratching at my skin like a flea-ridden dog.  I can only imagine what it must have sounded like as I talked about my situation.  I quickly responded by telling her that everything was great, but when we finished our conversation I wondered, "Do I enjoy farming?"

     The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines enjoyment as a feeling of pleasure caused by doing or experiencing something you like.  If we're being honest, I don't enjoy farm work according to this definition.  I derive very little pleasure from carrying buckets of grain and water out to the chicken coop day after day.  Furthermore, there are several words that could describe the process of unloading fifty pound hay bales from a truck or crawling in the dirt and pulling up weeds, but "pleasurable" isn't one of them.  So why do I continue working on a farm if I don't enjoy farming? 

     Part of the reason is that I think pleasure is overrated.  I'm not suggesting that our lives should be one long torture session, however, I am suggesting that it's a mistake to judge the worth of an action based solely on how much enjoyment we derive from it.  In fact, if you look at the things that people spend most of their day doing: eating, sleeping, traveling from place to place, using the toilet, etc.  I would argue that most of life isn't necessarily pleasurable in and of itself.  Instead, life is made up of a string of mundane, repetitive tasks that we must continuously do in order to stay alive.  Now we can run ourselves ragged trying to make every second of every day enjoyable.  We can play on our cell phones when we use the restroom, we can drive fast and blare music when we travel, we can pour sugar and salt on our food, and do a host of other things in order to regularly activate the pleasure centers of our brains.  But that seems like a lot of work.  I prefer the Zen method which entails learning to appreciate the mundane moments of life without adding any ideas of good or bad to them.  In this way, the act of pulling weeds on a hot day is neither enjoyable or unenjoyable... It's simply pulling weeds on a hot day.  Period.  

     I get the opportunity to cultivate this mindset every time I sit for meditation.  Sometimes the neighbors are being too loud and it's hard to concentrate, other times my right knee feels especially stiff and painful.  And I have honestly lost count of how many times I've received a text or phone call at the precise moment that I closed my eyes and began counting breathes.  In short, sitting meditation is rarely the blissed out, enjoyable experience that I would like it to be.  But over the years I've realized that the more I simply accept the discomfort and the distractions as part of the practice, and continue sitting in spite of them, the calmer and more peaceful my mind becomes.

     When I approach farm work with this same mindset, a natural sense of contentment arises as I go about my daily tasks.  No, I don't enjoy weeding, bug bites, or carrying water buckets.  However, when I gently acknowledge that lack of enjoyment, and then do my work anyway, a small shift takes place in my thinking.  Suddenly, instead of feeling irritation due to how far the chicken coop is from the water spigot, I feel satisfaction at the number of chickens that will have fresh water because of my efforts.  And instead of being hateful towards the deer flies that devour my flesh, I remember that they have just as much right to be here as I do.  In this way, the practice of farm work facilitates the study of my mind.  It also teaches me how to completely surrender to what ever the moment demands of me.  That being said, I'm not perfect.  I still have days where my mind leans more towards irritation and boredom than contentment.  But that's okay.  Imperfection is also part of the practice, and I think there is a certain joy in accepting that. 


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