Thursday, May 25, 2017

Please Don't Step on My Sacred Shoes

     I've owned the same pair of running shoes for about 5 years.  I bought them in preparation for an obstacle race that I was running, and they've served me well ever since.  We've worked on farms together, swam across lakes, and pedaled endless miles on bike trails and country roads.  In short, my shoes and I have been through a lot over the years, and I guess you could say we've bonded as a result.  That being said, it's becoming clear that our relationship will soon be coming to an end.  The rubber soles are slowly falling apart, and tiny holes are forming in the cloth uppers.  It's not a good look.  And I should've bought a new pair months ago, but a combination of cheapness and sentimentality have caused me to hold off for the time being.

     I remember when I first entered a Zen center and carelessly kicked my shoes off by the door.  I came back after practice to find that they'd been placed side by side against the wall with my laces tucked neatly into the shoes.  In fact, everyone's shoes were placed in a similar fashion so they formed a uniform row against the wall.  I found out later that one of the senior students took it upon herself to check the shoes before practice and fix any that were out of place.  "What's the big deal?" I thought to myself, "They're just shoes."  But out of respect I started lining up my shoes neatly alongside everyone else's.  It didn't take me long, however, to realize that shoes weren't the only things that got special treatment in the Zen center.

     We bowed to our cushions before and after meditation, we washed our bowls in a ritualistic way after meals,  and our teacher gave us strict instructions for hanging robes in the robe room.  We did all of this because the Zendo was thought to be a sacred space, so by extension everything within the Zendo (shoes, bowls, robes, etc.) was also sacred.  We bowed to our cushions because they gave us a place to sit.  We carefully washed our bowls because they held the food which nourished our bodies, and we lined up our shoes because they carried us all day without complaint.  In short, my shoes were sacred because the Zen center was sacred.

     I like to think of this as the "shoe teaching", and over the years I've learned that it doesn't stop when I leave the Zendo.    The bowls that hold my food at home nourish me just as much as the bowls I use during retreats.  And the chairs I sit on at work are more comfortable than the cushions in the mediation hall.  So if these things are sacred objects inside of the Zendo, wouldn't they also be sacred outside of it?  Furthermore, if my shoes are sacred because the Zen center is sacred.  Is it a stretch to say that the Zen center is sacred because the world is sacred?

     With this in mind, I make it my practice to respect the sacredness of mundane objects.  I try to be mindful when I wash my dishes, and I marvel at my good fortune each time I sit in a comfy chair.  As for my shoes... I'm always careful to line them up neatly by the door each time I come home from work.  They've put up with me for five years, it's the least I can do.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

The Zen of Long Road Trips

     My eyelids are getting heavy as I drive down the interstate.  It's been a long weekend of college graduations, and late-night parties with family.  It was fun.  But the lack of sleep is starting to catch up with me.  I try all of the usual tricks to stay awake.  I roll down the windows, play loud music, and consume energy drinks until my chest burns.  But none of it helps.  I do some quick math, and calculate that I have about 3 more hours on the road before I get home.  There's no way I'll make it at this rate, so I make the decision to pull over and take a nap.

     But this leads to a new problem.  Where am I supposed to pull over?  It's illegal to sleep on the side of the highway.  I'm not above catching some rest in a Wal-Mart parking lot, but my GPS says that there aren't any nearby.  In fact, there isn't much of anything nearby.  I'm traveling through a stretch of country where the landscape is dominated by forests and abandoned farms.  As a result, highway exits are few and far between.  So I'm on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel with nowhere to pull over and no way to get off the interstate.  It doesn't look good.

     Terrible images begin running through my head of multi-car pileups and mutilated bodies flying through the air.  "Something's gotta give." I whisper quietly.  Suddenly, I see a blue and white sign on the side of the road, and a feeling of relief floods my body.  The sign says, "Rest Area 1 Mile".  

     I pull into the rest area and park my rental car in the first available spot.  There is a small brick building in the middle which appears to house restrooms and several vending machines.  The building is surrounded by a large grassy area with several large trees and picnic tables.  Under different circumstances I might grab a bag of chips and walk around for a bit.  But in this moment, my mind is focused on other things.  Without another thought, I set my phone alarm, lean my car seat back, and surrender to my exhaustion.  When the alarm sounds 1 hour later I feel completely refreshed.  

     As I drive out of the rest area, I look around one last time.  There isn't a single piece of trash anywhere to be seen, and the grass is perfectly cut.  I make a mental note to include the groundskeepers in my chanting tonight.  But then another thought occurs to me.  What about the construction workers?  After all, someone had to build this place, right?  That being said, none of the construction would've been possible without the taxpayers who funded the project, or the politicians who gave it a green light.  I make a mental to note to chant for the health and well-being of all of these people.  But as I continue driving, the thoughts keep coming.

     The landscapers who planted the trees, the cement company that installed the parking lot, and even the people who use the rest area each day without trashing it all played a part.  But that's not the end of it.  None of this could've happened without the people who built the highway that I'm driving on or the car that I'm riding in.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that every human being on the planet has assisted me in some way, shape, or form on my journey.  Without their help, I wouldn't be able to visit with family or travel between cities.  And who knows what would've happened if they hadn't given me a place to sleep.

     A warm feeling of gratitude fills my body as I think of how fortunate I am.  I live on a planet where all life is interconnected, and all of it's working for my benefit.  Who could ask for more?

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

How Tipping 20% Became My Spiritual Practice

     Before I started practicing Zen, I treated people the way I thought they deserved to be treated.  If someone was kind to me, then I would be kind to them.  If someone screamed at me, then I would scream at them.  And if someone really pissed me off... Well, you get the point.  Looking back, this mindset had a huge affect on the way I treated the waitstaff in restaurants.  To be clear, I was never rude to my servers, but I did tip more or less based on what I thought they deserved. In fact, if the service was especially poor, I wouldn't leave a tip.  The goal was to show them that they'd done something wrong in the hopes that they'd do better next time.  It sounds good on paper.  But my spiritual practice made me question if my tipping policy was effective in the real world. What if my not leaving a tip was simply perpetuating the cycle of disappointment and discontent?

     For example, what if I received bad service because my waiter was having a bad day, and then I made their day even worse by not leaving a tip,  Wouldn't that mean that the person who sat down after me would have an even worse experience?  Furthermore, what if the server went home after their horrible day and got in a fight with their spouse because they didn't make enough money.  How far down did this rabbit hole go?!

     The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn't know what happened as a result of me leaving a tip, or not leaving a tip.  But it was the one piece of this cosmic puzzle that I could control.  So I started leaving 20% no matter what.  At best it would result in a positive outcome,  and at worst it would result in a neutral one.  Either way, I could go to sleep at night knowing that I did my part to make the world a little bit happier.

     I've been doing this for three years, and the results have been good.  I generally don't go back to restaurants if I have a bad experience.  But there have been a few times where circumstances made me go back, and I was treated really well.  In fact, there have even been times where I got great service from the same person who treated me poorly the first time around.  Did my tipping policy sow the karmic seeds for a positive dining experience?  I don't know.  But I think it's safe to say that in the face of adversity, kindness is a good response.

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