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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Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Lies Society Told Me

     When I was in kindergarten, my teacher pointed at a picture of grass and asked, "What color is this?"  I knew from earlier lessons that I needed to say, "green" if I wanted to get a gold star for the day.  And I really wanted a gold star because the kids with five gold stars at the end of the week would get to go to an ice cream party.  So I said, "green" like a good little boy, and I've stuck with that answer ever sense.  But closer inspection reveals that there is a quandary here.  If I had to guess, I'd say that my kindergarten teacher only told me that the color of grass is green because that's what her kindergarten teacher told her.  Furthermore, I would guess that if we continued back through time in the style of Dr. Who, then we'd find an endless stream of kindergarten teachers all saying, "Grass is green," because that's what their kindergarten teachers told them until finally we arrived at some undisclosed point in history when one man or woman looked at grass, called it green, and everyone else agreed to stick with that answer.  In other words, the color of grass is green for no other reason than that is what society has decided to call it.

     Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing.  We need a baseline of beliefs like, "grass is green" in order for people to be able to communicate..  Seriously, can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if everyone called the color of grass something different?  But there is a danger here.  If we base our beliefs and thus our morality solely on the dictates of society, then it becomes very easy to go along with things that are harmful to ourselves and others.  With this in mind, I've decided to make a list of the top ten lies that society told me.  They are as follows:
  1. My value as a man is dependent on how much money is in my bank account
  2. The purpose of life is to accumulate money, power, and possessions
  3. I need to get married and have kids in order to be "complete"
  4. Life is a zero sum game, and someone else has to lose for me to win
  5. Men aren't supposed to have feelings
  6. Alcohol and violence are viable means for problem-solving
  7. Working to protect the environment is a waste of time
  8. Animals are less important than people
  9. The best way to change the system is from within
  10. I'm not good enough 
     Zen practice gave me a platform for investigating these beliefs.  It also gave me a moral framework which I could use to replace them with more life-affirming ideas.  Through meditation I realized that there was no good reason for most of these ideas beyond the social indoctrination that I'd been receiving since I was a child.  Once I realized this, I gained the space and intellectual freedom to choose to believe other things.  However, I also gained a very deep sense of responsibility and a need to constantly ask the question, "Does this idea help to end suffering for myself and others?"  By keeping this question in mind, I've landed on five points of reference since I've started this project which help me make better sense of the world.  They are as follows:
  1. The value of a human being is inherent and unchanging regardless of either financial or social status
  2. The purpose of life is to exist and work to save all sentient beings from suffering
  3. Being open about my feelings is both healthy and necessary for building relationships 
  4. Caring for the environment is no different than caring for my own body
  5. The best way to change an oppressive system is to step as far outside of it as I can without causing harm to myself or others
     As I continue to explore my new mode of living in the world as an organic farmer and a lifestyle activist, these five points of reference serve as guideposts whenever I'm unsure about a particular course of action.  This is important as I continue to examine old modes of thinking and work to rid myself of harmful beliefs like the ones I listed earlier in this post.  It's a work in progress, and it's hard to be patient with myself as I continue to unlearn the lies society told me.  But just like I know that "grass is green", I also know that my efforts will pay off in the end

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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Poem Number Two

When a cold wind blows
I just shiver in response
Good Conversation

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Poem Number One

The still point in a sea of chaos
It is the rock that neither moves or stays still
When others speak of good or bad
It smiles and laughs

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Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Zen of Losing a Loved One

My brother-in-law is dead.  He died four days ago of a heart attack at the age of forty-six.  And in the rush to find out what happened, console my loved ones, and travel back home for the funeral there has been little time to process that fact.  But as I sit in my father’s living room and look out the window, the realization grows like a tree in the murky darkness of my mind.  Eventually, it becomes the only thing that I can think about.  My brother-in-law is dead.  

     What am I supposed to do about that?  How do I console my sister when she started this week as a wife, only to end it as a widow?  As I mull over these questions, I’m reminded of a story I read a while back.  A Zen monk learned of his mother’s death, and responded by bursting into tears.  When he saw the confused looks on his students’ faces, he asked them, “What does it mean to lose a mother?”  No one was able to tell him, so the monk gestured at his tear-stained face and said, “This is what it means to lose a mother”.  When I first read this story, it confused the hell out of me.  Where was the calm detachment that Zen is supposed to teach?  I assumed the monk just had a momentary lapse in judgement, and that the story was teaching me what not to do in the face of grief.  But I know better now.  By working with my teacher, I’ve learned that Zen practice isn’t about turning your emotions off.  It’s about learning to be fully human, and feeling your emotions in an open and honest way.  When we’re hungry we eat.  When we’re tired we sleep.  And just like the monk in the story, when we feel like crying; we cry.  

     My sister is crying right now because my brother-in-law is dead.  And I hate that.  I hate the fact that he’s gone.  I hate the fact that she’s in pain.  And I really hate the fact that there is nothing I can do to make this situation better.  But if I’ve learned anything from the countless hours I’ve spent sitting and staring at walls, it’s that sometimes “better” is too much to hope for.  Sometimes the only thing we can do is to simply sit and bear witness to our pain; whether it’s in our legs or in our hearts.  My brother-in-law is dead, but my sister is still alive, and she’s hurting right now.  I can’t make this situation better.  In fact, I’m not even going to try.  But I am going to sit with her, and bear witness to her pain.  I’m going to tell her that I love her, and I’m going to let her know I care.  Because no matter how much I hate it, that’s all I that I can do.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On Killing Chickens

     We have one hundred chickens on the farm right now.  They are Cornish Crosses, a special breed of meat bird that is generally docile, and reaches slaughter weight in approximately eight to ten weeks.  One week ago, they were living in a chicken coop. But we recently moved them to a barn which opens into an enclosed pasture.  Their new home will provide them with plenty of room to run, grow, and socialize until the day they're sent off for "processing".  It was during the transfer process when I felt their scared, squirming bodies in my hands that it hit me, "These chickens are going to die, and it's all my fault".  I've spent most of the past week trying to wrap my vegetarian brain around this fact.  To be clear, I knew that this would be part of my experience.  When I visited www.attra.ncat.org and searched for organic farming internships, the listings were very explicit in terms of what would be expected of me.  So how did I end up here?

     To be honest, a lot of it came down to necessity.  When I emailed organic farms inquiring about internship opportunities, not many people wanted to hire an IT guy with no experience.  Furthermore, the ones that did show interest all included meat production as part of their programs.  Going back to corporate America wasn't in the cards, so I took the pragmatic approach, and weighed my options.  There was a very nice lady in Oregon who seemed eager to have me.  She liked the fact that I was a refugee from the corporate world, but she made it clear that if I was going to intern on her farm, I'd have to take part in the slaughter.  She walked me through what that would entail, giving a detailed accounting of everything from sanitation requirements to how the evisceration table works. I appreciated her honesty, but I politely declined.  Next, was a lovely couple with a farm near Syracuse, New York. The wife was a former vegetarian, so they understood my predilections about animal slaughter, and they were willing to work with me to a point.  The husband would handle the bloody business of killing and gutting the animals.  But I'd still be responsible for cleaning the corpses and putting them in boxes.  This was a little better, but there was too much of a John Steinbeck vibe to the whole deal.  I pictured myself as a stone-faced slaughterhouse employee, putting dead bodies into boxes as if they were cell phones, and decided that this wasn't a good fit either.   Finally, I ended up here.  At an organic farm outside of Albany, New York which raises chickens and pigs as part of their portfolio  I don't have to kill any animals or even view their dead bodies.  I just feed and water them until the fateful day that they are loaded onto a truck for processing.  It's not a perfect solution.  But if one takes into account the humane way that the animals are treated while they're alive, and the fact that I'm not taking part in the killing; can we at least call it a "not quite so terrible" solution?

     One of the things that attracted me to Zen practice is it's emphasis on self-reliance.  My life and my mind are my responsibility.  There is great freedom in bearing full accountability for your life.  But at times like this, it can also be painful.  By caring for these animals every day, I am complicit in their murder.  I have no illusions about that fact.  My one consolation, however, is that for every one of these birds that we sell, that is one less chicken that will purchased from a factory farm.  The animals that I'm raising don't have their beaks cut, they spend most of their day outside in the open air, and they aren't given growth hormones.  Yes, these animals will die for human consumption, but both their lives and their deaths will be better than these factory farmed birds.  It's a weak argument, and I wish that I could do better.  But the more I walk this path, the more I realize that life rarely gives us perfect answers.  It just gives us the moment, and tells us to do our best.  With this in mind, I'm going to continue caring for these animals.  And when the day comes for them to be butchered, I'll load them onto the truck, hold my hands in gassho on their behalf, and hope that no one can see their blood on my hands.

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