2022-02-02 Satipaṭṭhāna (22) Doing One Thing at a Time
4:22PM Feb 2, 2022
We are staying with this third exercise that the Buddha taught in the Discourse on the Four Foundations for Awareness. It is easy to overlook this exercise because these four foundations are often taught as meditation practices. People will focus on the parts that have more to do with meditation. But here, meditation is not the focus, but rather activity.
It is mindfulness in daily life – mindfulness in the activities we do. It is worthwhile to take some time with this, and to really begin to appreciate how this can be done in practice in our lives.
There is a mutual relationship between how we develop our attention in meditation, and how we develop it in daily life. They support each other. They certainly support each other in that both are places where awareness gets stronger, and then expands our capacity to be present.
It is also important because the two areas highlight different aspects of life – different aspects of ourselves. If all we ever did was to go to a monastery and meditate – it might be wonderful – but it would be a very partial experience of who we are.
Not a few people have gone off on retreats, to be able to meditate all day. Wow, this is great. I am so wonderful. I will never be challenged again, because I am so balanced, clear, and peaceful. Then within a day of leaving, they are angry, upset, and yelling at other drivers. Or they find themselves completely consumed with desires.
They have certainly learned to settle themselves on retreat, but they have not learned how to bring attention to what happens in daily life – and how to be in daily life so that mindfulness carries the day, not our reactivity. In meditation, we get to look at part of who we are. In daily life, we get to look at other parts of who we are, and find a way to live wisely in both situations.
In terms of mindfulness in daily life – in activity – one of the great approaches is to do just one thing at a time. Whatever you are doing, just do that. Part of the advantage of going on retreat or going to live in a Buddhist monastery, is that the situation there tends to be set up – the ambience, the atmosphere, the dedication, what is happening around you – to support just doing one thing at a time, more so than in daily life.
When I was in the monastery, that was just understood. If you are sweeping the monastery grounds, just sweep. If you are washing dishes, just do the dishes.
This is represented by a story in Japan, when I was in the monastery. I went into the kitchen in the evening for a little snack or something. One of the other monks was preparing the vegetables for the next day's meal. He was chopping away. I stood opposite the table where he was chopping and asked him some question. I have no memory of what I asked him.
What I do remember was that he put down his knife. He stood up straight, looked at me, and answered me in a very matter of fact, nice way. Then he picked up his knife and started chopping again. That is when I asked the second question. He put down the knife, stood up straight, faced me and answer the question in a nice way.
Not really understanding what was going on, I asked him a third question. So he put down his knife again, faced me, and said: "Gil-san, you know, I am here in the kitchen to just chop the vegetables this evening. If you are going to talk to me, then I can't really do my work and focus on it." So then I bowed, apologized, and left.
He was just doing one thing at a time. When he was chopping, he was just chopping. When he was talking to me, he was just talking to me. He was dedicated to that. This was not really the ordinary time to have a conversation. It was reasonable that he wanted to dedicate himself to his work. It was the evening, and he probably wanted to get ready to go to bed.
So that story represents this dedication to doing one thing at a time. Of course, it can be overdone. There are times, of course, when the one thing we do is a number of things. But then, just do that.
I think I told a story yesterday of being a fast order cook. I just did one thing – not one thing – just one job. I was absorbed and just doing the job – surrendering to everything that was needed. I was tracking multiple things, but I was just cooking.
So exactly what one thing means varies from context to context. The principle is when you are doing something, just do that. Do not be involved in things which are extraneuous.
This one thing – this one practice – can enhance the experience with daily life. It begins to approach the kind of wholeheartedness that monastic life has – not that it is monastic life. You are getting some of the benefits, because a big part of monastic life is this ability to really do one thing at a time.
One of the ways of getting into this is to add in the idea of seeing that one thing through to the end. You are walking in your house from the living room to where the laundry is to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer. If you are walking, that is the task, just do that. You see that something needs to be cleaned up along the way, or something grabs your interest. You see that mail has arrived, and you want to check the mail. If you are doing this one practice at a time – and seeing it through to the end – since you set yourself on the course to go to the laundry room and move the laundry, just do that. It might be a little less efficient than doing something along the way, but it is more efficient in terms of cultivating mindfulness to just do that.
If it is important to do something else along the way, then of course, switch and do that. But just practice more and more seeing one thing through to the end. Then when you are finished, go look at the mail and do that one thing.
At first, it might seem a little artificial. But as you get into it, you will find that there is an enhancement of awareness – of presence. It helps evoke the various capacities we have when we are fully present for something. Just being there can be very relaxing. It can free us from the preoccupations and the stresses of the day. A lot of these stresses don't have much to do with what is happening in the moment. They have to do with our imagination or projection into the future. Our fantasies or anxieties have more to do with our thought world than they have to do with what is happening right here and now.
To be able to just see one thing through to the end and develop that capacity can be very freeing, in terms of what builds up stress in our minds. And then, learn to enjoy doing that. We learn how to do just one activity – embodying that with awareness. It is not a duty. It is not mental, like, "Now I should just be here." It is embodied – an all body thing – just the body there for itself.
This also represents for me an experience I had in the Japanese monastery. Sometimes it was my job to bring the food from the kitchen to the dining room table, where we would eat. Sometimes I was given the rice to carry – the big pot of rice. It was kind of big, but I could carry it with one hand, so I would carry it with one hand. It seemed like a fine thing to do and I was doing the job. Whenever I did that, some other monk would come along and say, "Gil-san, when you carry the pot, carry it with both hands." Just really be there.
In Zen, if you are drinking tea, you would not just drink it with one hand. You would actually be there fully to drink the tea – just the tea. Seeing that tea, all of it, with both hands. There is something about using both hands that contributes to embodiment: "Let us be here for this – this one thing."
Then also with our posture. There is posture that is relaxed, but the posture is not participating in what we are doing. It is not just a matter of doing one thing with attention. But also, "How much of our whole being can we gently, lovingly bring along to do something, so there begins to be a sense of being absorbed?" The more of ourselves we bring to the activity, the more pleasurable it tends to become. The more it enhances our capacity for presence.
Certainly, sometimes it is nice to relax the end of the day. Sit in a nice, easy chair, and maybe just read, or have tea. You are just reading, having tea, and drinking kind of mindlessly because you are doing that one relaxing thing. That is completely fine, because you know, "This is what I am doing."
It is qualitatively very different if you say, "Okay, now the one thing I am going to do is drink tea." You sit up a little bit straighter, so your spine is involved. Then you pick up the cup with two hands. You really meet it. This is what you are going to do, with two hands, with your whole body.
There are times when that begins awakening a very different kind of mindful presence – embodied awareness – than the idea that mindfulness is a mental activity of just knowing. Knowing I am lifting. Knowing the cup. Knowing a feeling. That is part of what mindfulness is, but it is partial awareness. We are using just one faculty. To bring our posture or body into what we are doing, feeling it and sensing it is how the sense of absorption or pleasure in the activity can grow.
In doing so, over time, you find that you have more clarity, more wisdom, more understanding, more ability to tune into your environment, and be in harmony or be wise with what you do. Doing and enjoying one thing at a time is not hedonistic. It sets up the conditions for wisdom, freedom, and clarity. So, do one activity at a time, and then see it through to the end – within reason, of course.
We will continue a bit more on this topic of mindfulness of activities. We will see that some of the lessons we learn here are related to what we learn in meditation practice. We can learn to apply this there as well, and this supports our meditation.