“We are still alive,” intoned one of the priests at Two Streams Zen, a tiny farm tucked into the woods in Westhampton, MA, where I attended a half-day retreat that included sitting, walking and working meditation.
Her stark words landed smack between my eyes. They were a reminder, at the beginning of the work period, that if we began to mechanically move without sensing what we were doing, we should stop, look around and orient to our surroundings. The mind can easily go on autopilot, causing us to zone out like zombies, rather than participate in a multi-sensory, fully embodied experience.
The priest asked me if I would be willing to do some weeding. Being in a Zen setting, I agreed, rather than ask for another, possibly more novel task. Then she thought again and offered me a choice: I could skim algae from her small pond instead. I decided to try something new.
She handed me gloves, what I’ll call a pond skimmer (a pole with a rectangular sieve at the end), and a plastic tub to deposit the algae. When I began working, I was under the influence of “conditioned mind”, those habitual, Western, capitalism-infused, perfectionist and approval-seeking thoughts which wanted me to believe that I had to skim as much algae as possible, if not remove ALL the algae, in order to “do a good job” so I could feel like “a good person”. These ideas that drive behavior, mine and other people’s, are so deeply ingrained as to be almost invisible. As I quickly learned, skimming this particular algae, which had blossomed into a thick, bright green slime, required a different approach than more familiar tasks such as raking leaves or shoveling snow or dirt. Because each sieve of algae behaved differently from the preceding one, autopilot was not an option. Sometimes I reached into the pond, scooped a decent haul of this photosynthetic phenomenon, only to have most of it slide off before I could maneuver it into the tub.
If I hadn’t studied the Feldenkrais Method, I might have become frustrated that the algae wasn’t “cooperating” with my plans to remove it (and, really, why should it agree to its own demise?). Instead, I knew to adapt to the situation and “become one” with, or listen to, the algae and work with it on its own, unpredictable terms. That meant slowing down and frequently repositioning myself to be more comfortably in control of the skimmer and use greater finesse. It also meant being satisfied with scooping smaller amounts of the slippery substance each time, rather than grabbing a full load. Since the skimmer was my only tool, I had to work with it as well as I could. Indeed, the task had not been to clean the pond as quickly as possible, or to clean it thoroughly (is that even realistic?), or to always fill the sieve. The point had been to clean it mindfully, with the process taking precedence over the result.
The more deliberately I moved, the more I noticed. A frog, undeterred by my presence, surfaced on a lily pad. Tadpoles darted around the pond’s edge. A dragonfly buzzed and swooped. Because I wasn’t trying to work quickly, I let the water drain from the sieve before depositing the algae in the tub. That gave me a chance to look at what I’d removed from the pond. Sometimes I scooped up tadpoles, often camouflaged against dark brown leaves, discernible only by their movements. They reminded me of flashes of insight and intuition that often move quickly through my consciousness, easily missed if I’m not paying attention.
Since Zen practice respects all of life, insects included, I could not consign these miniature, wriggling creatures to their deaths by dumping them in the plastic tub (and, eventually into a compost pile). Saving the tadpoles meant gently nudging them or, if that did not work, flicking them back into the water, a labor intensive task. Sometimes, if the net caught several tadpoles at once, I lowered the skimmer and returned them, along with all the algae I’d scooped, back to the pond. Although I did not wish to kill the tadpoles, I noticed a subtle disappointment that I’d lost the algae and would need to try again. Was rescuing the tadpoles somehow less worthy or satisfying than adding to the algae pile in the tub? Was the quantity I collected the measure of success, or my worth in that moment? Indeed, the habit of quantifying had carved a deep neural pathway, if not a rut, in my brain, even though what makes life worth living can’t be measured.
This tiny tadpole drama felt like a microcosm of other planetary problems, such as fishermen who catch dolphins in tuna nets, or the egg producers who destroy baby male chicks, believing the ends justify the means. To discover that this productivity-at-all-costs sickness still lurked in my psyche strengthened my intention to just be as a small child, and work unhurriedly while being captivated by the almost iridescent algae, the movements of the frog and the elusive tadpoles, and how the sunlight penetrated the depth and layers of the water.
When the retreat ended, I felt lighter and more present. As it is with Zen practice, it’s hard to say if I cleaned the pond or if the pond cleaned me.
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