Melody Babbitt lives on Main Street in Pueblo, Colorado, a city of 106,595 once described as the “Pittsburgh of the West” but now enduring hard times. One of several Pueblo residents profiled on the PBS program Need to Know (October 5, 2012), Melody is an outreach specialist for the state of Colorado. She helps disabled Americans find work. Melody earns $40,000 a year and carries health insurance, but after three required abdominal surgeries that her insurance didn’t cover, she found herself deeply in debt and filed for bankruptcy. Now she needs a fourth operation and doesn’t have the money. “I’m procrastinating and postponing the surgery,” she tells journalist John Larson, the program’s narrator, as she sweeps her front porch. “I will eventually. But I can’t right now. I just can’t afford it.”
Melody Babbitt’s plight is compelling, but no less compelling is the image we are left with: that of an American woman in her late forties, telling her story of hardship while sweeping her front porch. In the midst of financial constraints so severe that she won’t allow herself to go to the movies, she is sweeping her porch. Faced with economic conditions she had no reason to expect and is virtually powerless to control, she is taking care of her home. By extension, it might be said, she is also taking care of her life.
That is an abiding purpose for most of us, I suspect, and it is also a central purpose of Zen meditation. People often come to Zen practice because their minds are unsettled and their lives are in disarray. After a few months—or even weeks—of daily practice, many find that their minds are becoming calmer and clearer, and that order is returning to their lives. And should they continue beyond that point, setting aside at least ten minutes a day for meditation, they may also find that the practice which helped them regain their balance is also helping them sustain it. For in three distinct ways, Zen practice can help us take care of our lives.
First and most evident, Zen practice encourages an attitude of caring toward one’s immediate environment. Visit a Zen monastery, and you are likely to be struck by the order and cleanliness of your surroundings. That impression stems in part from the austerity of the furnishings, the careful placement of calligraphic drawings, incense bowls, and other elements of décor. But the order of the zendo also reflects a cardinal principle of Zen teachings, namely that everything in one’s immediate environment, including inanimate objects, is worthy of respect. Further, it reflects the belief that the tasks of caretaking and housecleaning, often belittled as menial, are every bit as worthy as other, more exalted work. And, most of all, it expresses the understanding that “outer” and “inner” forms of order are parts of a whole, if not one and the same. By sweeping the floor, you are also sweeping your mind.
To be sure, one’s mind may remain unswept and disordered in even the most orderly surroundings. Indeed, to someone in acute distress, the orderly ambiance of an office or waiting room may be experienced as less a consolation than an affront. But just as it is possible to care for a room or house or landscape, it is also possible to care for one’s state of mind, whatever it may be. In Buddhist teachings, states of mind are known as “mental formations.” Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition lists fifty-one mental formations, ranging from agitation to craving to serenity. The way to take care of them, Zen teachings advise, is, first, to remember that they are “empty”—which is to say, impermanent—and, second, to practice what Buddhism calls “mindfulness of the mind.” When you are irritable, you know you are irritable. When you are calm, you know you are calm. By bringing a relaxed, non-judgmental awareness to your present state of mind, you release your attachment to it, allowing it to change of its own accord. By so doing, you catch the spark before it becomes a conflagration, the moment of sadness before it becomes a downward spiral. In this way, you take care of your mind.
Beyond the care of one’s immediate environment and one’s mental state, however, there is a deeper form of caring, which might be characterized as taking care of life itself. Those who have survived a life-threatening illness often report a quickened appreciation of their lives, attendant to a heightened awareness of their mortality. To engender that appreciation, not only under life-threatening circumstances but also in our daily lives, is a central aim of Zen meditation. That is why Zen monastics chant the somber imperative “Take heed; do not squander your life” at the close of day, and why Zen teachings enjoin us to clarify the “Great Matter of Life and Death,” by which is meant the impermanence of all conditioned things, including and especially our very lives. At the intellectual level, that truth is little more than a banality. But having truly felt it at the emotional and indeed the visceral levels, we are less likely to squander our lives in pursuit of petty satisfactions and distracting entertainments. And having sharpened our awareness of the preciousness of our lives, we may come to value, appreciate, and take care of them, whatever afflictions and hardships come our way.
That is a lofty goal, of course, and few of us are up to it every day. But the effort to attain it can start with a straightening of the spine, a few conscious breaths—and the careful sweeping of one’s front porch.