I was told that one of the major Buddhist magazines, Lion’s Roar, is publishing an excerpt from our Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachment. There were delays with the printer proofs, but these are now in order and it looks as if the publication date is February 25 at the latest (3 weeks’ delay). So those of you who pre-ordered, you’ll get the book by the end of February—and thank you very, very much. Those of you who haven’t, you’ll be able to buy the book not just from Amazon but also from an independent local bookseller very soon.
Last night I held the first of a series of workshops on householder koans. I asked the small group of participants—seasoned meditators—to consider a specific occasion in their life which made an impact on their behavior. It didn’t have to be big, I said, it just had to show some kind of pivot into an aspect of life that you might not have considered or were comfortable with before. Often you can feel those turns stretching you—or at least stretching your story of yourself.
As I waited for them to write I tried to think back to such an event in my own life. I was tired and couldn’t think of something right away. I knew they were there, turning points in my life big and small, but they didn’t come to mind—till one did.
I remembered living in Woodstock in the early 1990s, the first time I ever really lived in the country. I rented a garage apartment next to a big, gray, stone house where my landlords lived, the woods on one side and the big Ashokan Reservoir on the other. I lived there alone with Woody, my Golden Retriever. The apartment had poor insulation, as I discovered the first winter I was there. I’d get out of bed in early morning, get hit by cold air, and hurry off to take a hot shower to warm up.
One morning I hurriedly pushed aside the bath curtain to put on the water and saw a small black spider on the bottom of the tub. Ordinarily I’d have ignored it and turned on the water; it’s what I’d always done. This time I stopped. I didn’t think anything, I don’t remember that much time passed. I just walked to the cold kitchen, got a piece of paper and a cup, retrieved the spider and took it outside.
That’s what I did from then on, day after day, especially in spring and summer when big and small insects come into country homes. By now I’m so organized that in warm weather I have a cup as well as a piece of lightweight cardboard on the bathroom counter, ready to take out the bees, spiders, crickets, beetles, ladybugs and dragonflies that seek out water and end up in my shower.
What I remember from that early morning in the early 1990s is that I just acted. Nobody talked to me about it, I didn’t think about the Buddhist precept of non-killing or anything like that. I just looked at a black spider at the bottom of the bathtub, stopped my hand from turning on the water and walked to the kitchen to find something to retrieve it and take it outdoors. No internal discussion, no feelings of empathy or compassion, no story around what a good person would do or not. My behavior just changed that morning, out of the blue.
We often think that behavior changes from story: I realized that everything is Buddha, everything is alive, that God appears in all things, so I saved the life of the spider. But actually, behavior can change with no story at all. One day you just see life in a different way.
David Whyte wrote “I began to realize that my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had … but on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself.”
I don’t think it’s about personal identity at all. One day, without warning, you leave yourself behind—your belief systems, your values, the mental scaffolding of your life. You see something fresh, not as a function of yourself but as it is, as if for the first time. And you do something differently.