“Can you say,” I once inquired of a sixty year old cloistered nun who had lived (vibrantly, it seemed) from the age of nineteen in her monastery cell, “what the core of contemplative life is?”
“Leisure,” she said, without hesitation, her china blue eyes cheerfully steady on me. I suppose I expected her to say, “Prayer.” Or maybe “The search for God.” Or “Inner peace.” Inner peace would have been good. One of the big-ticket items of spirituality.
She saw I didn't see.
“It takes time to do this,” she said finally.
Her “this” being the kind of “work” that requires abdication from time's industrial purpose (doing things, getting things). By choosing leisure she had bid farewell to the fevered enterprise of getting-and-spending whereby, as the poet said, “we lay waste our powers.”
– Excerpted from A Search for the Sublime by Patricia Hampl
Holy Leisure appears on the monastic schedule every Sunday afternoon. I’ve often wondered why it’s not featured more regularly, but I suspect there is a kindness in not having to confront the hardest course in the curriculum of spirituality more than weekly! Holy Leisure is a time to just be. We find it hard to just be, to do nothing, as so many of us are finding out first-hand with the current stay-at-home orders. We find ourselves not knowing what to do when we can’t do what we normally do or, as in the case of Holy Leisure at the Monastery, there is nothing to do. The structure of Holy Leisure assists in confronting how doing stops us from being. It appears that “knowing being,” the blessed knowledge of Emptiness, the recognition of ourselves as the Intelligence that Animates, can happen only when we stop doing.
Needless to say, Holy Leisure is an important practice! And then someone asked a question… “Can we perform a labor of love during Holy Leisure? It’s not ‘work’ if it’s love, is it?”
A little context here. The Monastery is making masks for frontline workers—grocery store clerks, prison wardens and nurses. Sewing is feverishly underway as the demand is acute. So, should we take a break from being and work on making masks? I sat with this question, waiting for Life’s guidance to drop in. What dropped in was this Musings article. The road to the answer allowed me to examine the reason for structures in spiritual training and how brilliantly designed they are to encounter and transcend ego.
Take the Monastic schedule, for example. There is a time to meditate, a time to eat, a time to walk, a time to process, a time to be in the garden, a time not to work, times to R/L and a time to sleep. The times are arbitrary; there is no reason behind why we sit at 2:30 p.m., and one could wonder why we follow an arbitrary schedule as if it were sacrosanct and get judged for being rigid and unyielding. Structures need to be inviolate when we are in spiritual training because that’s the way we contend with ego’s primary weapon: resistance. The ego acts on whim, on what it feels like doing. If we need to train to go with Life’s guidance rather than be pushed around by a capricious mental program whose mantra is “I don’t want to, I don’t feel like it,” showing up regardless of what “I feel” is crucial. I may not feel like meditating, but my job is to train to lose interest in ego’s feelings (because ego is not me) and be seated on the cushion in the Meditation Hall at 2:25 p.m.
It gets worse than having to meditate when I don’t feel like it (for the ego of course!). At the Monastery you don’t have a say in what you do. You simply execute the task you’re given. This structure of doing your assigned task builds on the training to lose interest in feelings. If I’m required to do a task regardless of how I feel, I rapidly get in touch with the principle that my well-being is not conditional. As long as I resist, rail against, and complain and moan at having to do something that I don’t want to do, I’m miserable. I continue thinking that what I’ve been given to do is making me miserable, until one day I realize that I rather like sweeping the porches. If I’m lucky, I soon recognize that my misery has nothing to do with the task and everything to do with the conversation in the head that is being indulged while I do it. I begin to see that being happy or unhappy is a choice I can make, and the price of happiness is surrendering the egocentric orientation of conditionality and control, or the illusion thereof.
If we pay attention, we notice that Life unfolds without consulting our preferences. That control is an illusion is one of the hardest lessons for a conditioned human being to learn. I have no way of directing the course of life; and whether I’m on board or not, I’m swept into the current. That’s the lesson the Monastery structure illustrates for me over and over. “I” have no say in how things happen. Whether I consider a structure stupid, unnecessary, ridiculous or even supportive, it simply is and has to be followed. That’s the agreement my heart made before I walked through the Monastery gate. Submitting to the structure is surrendering an ego position, a practice that I get to do until the ego is completely annihilated and I’m happily absorbed into being lived and unfolded by Existence.
And here is what ego really balks at: No unilateral decisions are made at the Monastery. Everything is done within “guidance.” Within the Monastery walls, “expertise” is not venerated. Even if you’re a master chef who has chopped a thousand tomatoes, you’ll still be instructed on how to take a knife to a nightshade. This structure of guidance is a way to train attention from referencing the limited knowledge of conditioned thinking to accessing the rich and dynamic database of consciousness in the moment. It’s a training to be HERE, because being present is the only way to access the information in the moment. You have to be here to know you don’t know and seek guidance. Structures help with that as well because violating a structure assists us to understand how often we’re not HERE. An oft quoted example of this is finding oneself in the Monastery kitchen wearing outside shoes. Where was I when I walked through the dining hall doors?
Which brings us back to Holy Leisure and the question that inspired this article.
Someone asks, “If masks save lives, and if making them is a labor of love, does it take precedence over the structure of Holy Leisure?” You can almost feel ego marshal its arguments. After all, what better reason to overturn a structure (cold, rigid, unyielding, only for my benefit but it’s hard to see how) than an impulse that serves others? This is where the structure assists. It does its job by surfacing the duality: follow the structure and be spiritually correct, or follow the loving impulse and save lives. What a tough choice!
You don’t have to be in monastic training to relate to the kind of situation where we feel conflicted by two “good” but contradictory choices. In fact, feeling conflicted appears to be accentuated when an impulse to action drops in with a Life label such as love, integrity, responsibility, goodness, enthusiasm, inspiration or helpfulness. And despite all these good reasons, “I” still find myself paralyzed by a lack of conviction to take action. I’m confused. Confusion implies being stuck in a decision about content. It doesn’t matter what the merits of the choices are. The “right” choice cannot be made from within that process. Presenting the choice, in our example, as between individual spiritual salvation and saving lives obscures the only real choice I can make, the choice between freedom and suffering.
If one is a spiritual aspirant, the question that accompanies this state of confusion is “How do I know if I’m following ego or Life’s guidance? Is True Nature raising a red flag or is ego seducing me?” It sounds like the question of a sincere seeker doesn’t it? If you asked a Zen teacher this question, her answer would likely be a laughing, non-committal “You never know.” What that translates into is not that there isn’t a definitive answer but that there isn’t a “you” to know it, and if you were HERE, you would not be asking the question. Which is the answer! The clearest choice in any moment is to surrender the “I” and make the choice for freedom from suffering.
Dharma is a word that connotes behaviors or actions that are in accordance with the inherent order of the Universe. Clarity is simply the experience of being in accordance with. Confusion is the opposite. If I am conflicted, then I know that I am not in accordance with The Way, with the Tao. Acting from a lack of clarity will always perpetuate suffering. It’s not dharmic (not in alignment with how life is). In point of fact, identification will cloud my ability to tell the Life action from the karmic one, often making the karmic action the “right” choice.
So, “should I override the structure or follow a loving impulse” is really a red-herring kind of question designed to keep me in suffering. Fortunately, most monastics are trained not to go with an impulse that violates a structure. They are trained to ask for guidance. If the Message Board reads “Sunday 1:30 p.m. Holy Leisure” and you feel like doing something else, ask for guidance as a way to make the dharmic choice of exiting the conditioned process of suffering.
On a content note: The guidance in the case of mask making (at the end of all this musing) was to keep the structure and practice Holy Leisure. For, in the end, the structure holds the heart when the mind spins in confusion. And when I’m HERE, there is the simple clarity of everything arising in Love and no confusion between a labor of love and following a structure for my awakening.
The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for, or against, anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood, the mind's essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
The Way is perfect, like vast space where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things.
Live neither in the entanglements of outer things, nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
Be serene in the oneness of things, and such erroneous views will disappear by themselves.
– Hsin Hsin Ming