Friday, July 24, 2009

The Humble Things That Help Us Grow

I've been busy for a while doing the sorts of things a hermit does in the summer and it occurred to me how important they can be for a spiritual life. In fact, this thought came while I was picking red currants off the bush that grows in my neighbour's boulevard.

My lower back was a little painful and I was a bit bored, but my cat was dancing around me (she loves it when I'm out doing yard work) and I was listening to the birds and street noise. It takes a long time to pick these tiny little berries and in this case it took me about two hours to fill a little basket. And that little basket, in turn, only created enough jelly to fit one pint jar.

Of course, this makes absolutely no economic sense. But it does teach me the lesson of patience and it reminds me about how much work goes into food. I try to remain mindful of this fact, and to that point I have a poem from Journey to the West taped up on the wall over my kitchen table:

Hoeing millet in the noon-day sun,
Sweat drips on the ground beneathe the millet.
Who understands that of the food that's in the bowl,
Every single grain was won through bitter toil?
A few days later I put up a year's supply of peach chutney. Again, there is a lot of work to do, but it centres me and puts me back in touch with nature.

Also, when I preserve my own food, it allows me to eat stuff that simply cannot be purchased in the stores and which I know full well how it is made. If I was very rich, I could buy red currant jelly and peach chutney from a very expensive food store---but for most people this stuff is simply unobtainable unless you make it yourself.

More to the point, it gives me an ability to live much more "rooted" in my local environment than other folks who eat everything from a system that removes them totally from producers and the world around them.

A naive person can look at all the work and just see meagre results. But I see the embodiment of my attempt to live a life of integrity in a specific place, at a specific time---instead of being yet another modern man who is totally cut off from the world around him.

In the last part of the book of Liezi, he leaves his master and decides to live a simple life that includes taking care of his farm and helping his wife with her housework. Once he does this and stops looking for enlightenment, he finally becomes a realized man.

People seek to gain amazing spiritual powers through heroic acts of meditation and asceticism, through arcane rituals and by seeking enlightened masters. But I think that the road to wisdom comes from learning to accept a little boredom and being happy with little things like a jar of home-made jam.