Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Buddhist and the Paper Plates

It was my first daylong silent satsang. Dorothy Hunt was teaching, at a church that stood on a hill in Tiburon overlooking the water. The day was grey and cold, and, as always for such things, I had to force myself to get out of my comfortable bed that Saturday morning and drive over the bridge to Marin. But the promise I had made to myself to take care of my spiritual life was strong and clear in my head as I drove over and up the windy road to the church parking lot.

I had volunteered to help in the kitchen. I figured everybody there was going to volunteer to do something; isn’t that how these things go? I didn’t realize until I went in and introduced myself to Dorothy’s assistant that I would be the only one. Oh well, it wasn’t that hard: just keep the water hot for tea and lay out the snacks for after lunch.

The assistant obviously had a very clear idea of what needed to happen, when, and exactly how. Here were all the dry snacks in this bag, and dried fruit on this tray here, paper plates and plastic forks and spoons here: just lay them out during lunch and cover the food with towels until the snack break. And don’t forget to make sure there’s enough hot water for tea!

Almost immediately, I felt like I was failing. I hadn’t come as early as I was clearly expected to: the tea things were already set out. Then I kept asking questions about where things were kept. I figured I was being oversensitive when I sensed that she was irritated by my questions. But OK, that was her thing, I familiarized myself with the task list, filled the canister to heat the water for tea, and went in to the other room to learn about enlightenment.

I was surprised by how distracted I was by my duties. They weren’t that hard, or complicated, but I found myself worrying if I should go now to put out the snack things or check the tea water. I didn’t have a watch and the room had no clock. But that didn’t matter, since I didn’t know what time lunch or snack time was anyway.

The teaching was about staying in the present moment and letting our true self make our decisions for us, rather than the false self of our minds and their stories about what’s happening at any given moment. I recognized my kitchen issues as a real-life lesson in the concepts being taught. As my mind scurried while the rest of me tried to stay present, I watched it all from another place. Was this the Observer self?

The big trouble happened at the end of lunch. We had over an hour for lunch, so I drove down to the supermarket, about a 10-minute drive, and got some soup to eat in the car. Then I took a walk. I came back to the church and there was about 15 minutes left until lunch ended. The assistant was in the kitchen, looking worried, even though there was plenty of time. When she saw me, she went away to do something else, and I started setting out the snacks.

Now here’s the thing: I don’ t like paper plates and plastic utensils. As far as I’m concerned, they’re a lazy and mindless way to create more useless trash for landfills. I’d rather wash a mountain of plates and silverware than rely on disposable ones, if there’s any other option. I’ve even been known to forego using any sort of plate or utensil when I could get away with it, rather than use anything disposable.

In the church kitchen, were cupboards full of heavy-duty ceramic crockery and drawers full of silverware. I reasoned, OK, here I was learning how to rest in the wisdom of my Essential Self, so because I feel so strongly about the paper plate issue, I will put out the ceramic plates and the silverware, and wash it all myself rather than put out disposable things. I did so, and went to put some of my stuff back in the car.

When I returned to the kitchen, the assistant had put all the crockery and silverware away and had put out the paper plates and plastic utensils. I explained that one of my passions was living lightly on the planet, and that I really hated disposable plates and utensils. She talked about how I’d then have to wait for the dishwasher to go through its entire cycle before I could leave after the satsang. I didn’t even realize there was a dishwasher; I told her I’d handwash everything afterwards, and not to worry. She was having none of it. “I think we should just use these,” she said, “I mean she brought them, so we should use them.” I got irritated, but rather than show it, just said OK and started to walk out. “But there are still things to put out,” she said, pointing to the tray of dry fruit I’d forgotten.

I set about putting them out, and she left. I was pretty hot under the collar, and felt stupid, to boot, to have forgotten the fruit. Something about this woman got under my skin. Her attitude was haughty and controlling. I immediately felt like she disapproved of me, like I’d done something wrong. I observed my mind getting angry, and fought to keep it under control. I felt sullen, like I used to as a child when I was scolded.

Aren’t Buddhists supposed to be pleasant and smiling all the time?

Stubbornly, I told myself that I needed to live in my integrity, so I put away the paper plates and plastic forks, and put out the ceramic crockery and silverware again. I covered the food with towels, and went back to the teaching room.

Listening to the teacher, I was even more distracted than I had been before lunch. So many things were happening, but the main thing was that I was terrified of the assistant’s disapproval. I worried that she’d discover I put the paper plates away and be mad at me. For about an hour, I went back and forth in my head about it. I knew if I went back into the kitchen and put the paper plates back out, I’d feel relieved. But it felt wrong. Why was I letting her control me like that? Why were my principles less important than her need for control?

But, in the bigger perspective, did it really matter if people used paper plates and tossed them in the trash? If I washed all the dishes, wasn’t that using water – a precious resource - and toxic soap, that would end up in the bay anyway? Who was to say what was more damaging?

Then I came up with the perfect plan: I would put out both! People could choose paper or ceramic, and I’d wash the ceramic plates and silverware. So I went to the kitchen and set out both sets of plates and utensils. I came back to the satsang and thought I’d feel better, but I didn’t. I was still terrified of the assistant’s disapproval. What if she was right? What if there really was a reason not to use the ceramic plates, and I just didn’t know what it was? I hated the thought of feeling her disapproval.

Finally, I decided that I was wasting so much time worrying about it, and that I might as well just put the paper plates out and the planet be damned. I knew I’d feel relieved, I’d be able to pay attention better, and let the assistant be the one to shoulder the karma for throwing more trash into already-overflowing landfills. I had tried to do the right thing and been cowed into submission. But I was sick of worrying about it.

So I went out and put the ceramic things away. And immediately I felt better.

Then, of course, my mind tried to tell me I had been wrong by submitting to her unreasonable demands. Hadn’t I said I’d do all the washing-up? What difference did it make to her? But the immense feeling of relief overpowered the righteous indignation. I was just glad I wouldn’t have to have any more run-ins with her.

Everything else went smoothly that night, although I doubt I’ll volunteer at any more satsangs. I learned how terrified I am to forge my own path, of meeting with anyone’s disapproval. I learned how the brain can turn anything into a big drama, even a one-day “silent” retreat about discovering your inner wisdom. I still don’t know what the right thing to do was in this situation: should I have stuck to my guns, or was it better to give in? But, as everything is, this was a learning opportunity, and not the learning I expected to get from the teacher, but the kind of learning we can only get from life.

Driving away into the evening, I realized that, after worrying about the paper plates all day, I had forgotten to re-fill the canister at lunch for hot tea!

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