Looking on the right side

19 01 2020

A short while ago, when our old broom bent out of shape and lost its head, I went out and bought this one. I spent a long time choosing this particular broom; it needed to be robust, but not heavy; easy to handle, but not flimsy; smooth sliding, but not too slick. It needed traction, stiff bristles that did not shed on the first sweeping. It needed a wooden handle because the previous metal broom had snapped under pressure from a Tinker-sized hoof. It needed a little shed space all to itself.

As you can tell, I enjoyed shopping for this broom – I have spent less time choosing winter boots – and I’ve enjoyed using it daily since. Because it is so well designed for its daily job of sweeping rubber mats clear of fresh horse droppings, it is a pleasure to use. This morning, it became my teacher.

Inspired by a thought-provoking horsemanship clinic with Kate Sandel on Dartmoor, I decided to test my ability to sweep from the right. Now, I am left-handed and I find it difficult to use my right hand for much except using a knife – not a bread-knife, or a sharp knife; I switch to my left for anything resembling cutting. As I prepared for my new challenge, I remembered signing for a package this week on one of those box screens. I also recalled the postman had automatically positioned the box for a right-handed person. Even he laughed at my infantile scrawl as he walked off down the path.

You’ll notice I had spent a long time choosing my new broom and precisely zero time considering how I was going to use it. I applied the same principle of utility I used for most objects in my life: pick them up in a way that feels natural and easy and get the job done. Today I learned how difficult it was to work with my right hand because my mind was continually priming my left. It was almost comical; I would start sweeping to the right, but in no time, I’d end up back on the left. It took total concentration to sweep the mats using my unfamiliar side and by the time I finished I was tired.

I wondered about amputees having to learn how to walk again with alien artificial limbs and how the mind often holds onto parts of the body that no longer exist in reality by creating a phantom version that pulses with pain. I saw in my own lesson with the broom, the seed of something fundamental about the way my mind tries to support me by turning most of my daily tasks into a shortcut. My mind saves me from getting overly involved in tasks it can do automatically so that I can move onto more important tasks such as teaching or reading or spending time with people I love.

If I lost my left arm tomorrow, I would find it difficult to drive, to type, to wash up, to lead a horse, to clean my teeth, and I would have to use my right arm. With time and patience, I would probably master it. I would acquire a new perspective. Understanding that there are other ways to sweep a mat means recognising that my habitual way of doing things is simply one perspective on one experience. Operating through habit most of the day, I’m not particularly looking out for new perspectives. Like most people, I’m scanning the world for threats and opportunities and trying to get through my day with ease. Being left-handed can be frustrating when I’m tired and forget how to use light switches, pour from a saucepan, or try to open a box. Mostly, though, I don’t think about it.

In between chores, reading some essays in Zen Buddhism has given me a glimmer of a new perspective. Like really good philosophy, Zen makes me think hard about all the little things I do (and don’t do). Japanese Zen students call this acquiring of new knowledge: Satori, which is another name for Enlightenment.

“The essence of Zen Buddhism consists in acquiring a new viewpoint of looking at life and things generally. By this I mean that if we want to get into the innermost life of Zen, we must forgo all our ordinary habits of thinking which control our everyday life, we must try to see if there is any other way of judging things, or rather if our ordinary way is always sufficient to give us the ultimate satisfaction of our spiritual needs.”

Essays in Zen Buddhism. D.T. Suzuki (1949)

Developing a different point of view is one of the most difficult tasks I face daily, and like sweeping from my favoured side, I often take a shortcut to what feels easy and familiar. Every day, I rely on my knowledge and experience to solve problems and meet challenges. Sometimes, though, I come up against a question for which my professional knowledge and experience has no answer.

Zen Buddhism points to a new, fresher way of solving problems and meeting challenges – not by sitting cross-legged on a remote mountain or retreating to a cave – but by overthrowing the mountain of habit itself. Acquiring Satori, is in Suzuki’s description “the greatest mental cataclysm one can go through with in life. It is no easy task, it is a fiery baptism, and one has to go through the storm, the earthquake, the overthrowing of the mountains, and the breaking in pieces of the rocks.”

Wow…now I see why it is so much easier for me to sweep from the left.


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One response

20 01 2020
conversationswithnell

Lovely. Thank you. X

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