Most of the time I find the work I do – helping people use mindfulness and self-compassion to meet the stresses, losses and difficulties in their lives with more flexibility and resilience, even to come into thriving and well-being – is truly rewarding and helps me thrive, too. Over the holidays, as I was deleting thousands of e-mails and doing the year-end accounting for my taxes and sorting through embarrassingly high piles on my desk, I began to bemoan the tediousness of all the tasks I had let pile up during the year. (As the Indian poet Tagore describes it, “an endless toil in a shoreless sea of toil.”)
Then I remembered this teaching story I heard when I was growing up: Three men were hard at work breaking up big rocks with pick axes and sledge hammers. Someone went up to the first man and asked him what he was doing. He replied somewhat scornfully, “I’m breaking rock! What do you think I’m doing? Every lousy day. Quit bothering me!”
The inquirer went up to the second man and asked him what he was doing. He paused for a moment, thought for a moment, and said, “Well, I’m earning a living. I’m providing for my family. I’m taking care of the people I care about.”
The inquirer went up to the third man and asked him what he was doing. His eyes lit up, he placed one hand on his heart, and said, “I’m helping to build a cathedral!”
As I reflected on this story/metaphor further, I realized how much lighter the load feels when I keep the big picture in mind, the “cathedral” I’m helping to build. When I lose that big picture, I can fall into resentment or fatigue. I feel very different if I think I’m just breaking rock doing the dishes for the 17th time in a week, versus when I’m doing the dishes after a Deepening Joy group or a gathering of my Gourmet Poets Society in my home, every dish, every spoon a reminder of the resonant sharing of like-minded souls.
At the beginning of a new year, we’re encouraged by custom and culture to make resolutions for new behaviors, grander goals -repairing a rupture with a sibling, protecting our health and energy with exercise, volunteering on projects to address climate change. Setting our intentions motivates and focuses us in very productive ways.
And, as we move further into the new year, it can be a very useful resource for recovering resilience to identify the rocks you need for the cathedral you are choosing to build and to sustain the meaning and joy in the most mundane, repetitive, thankless tasks by remembering that each chore is part of the larger vision that fuels our perseverance.(Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom of “no mud, no lotus” is another way of remembering this.)
I’ve realized that if I delete my e-mails at the end of every day, and back-up my computer at the end of every day, messages don’t pile up and my resentment doesn’t pile up to the point of my resisting doing the chore. (49,000 emails is a mountain of rock to break at the end of the year.) Similarly with returning phone calls, or paying bills, or doing a load of laundry rather than waiting until there are six loads. Mundane, tedious tasks that can devolve into breaking rock unless we can keep the larger vision in mind.
And unless we keep up with them. My colleague Paul Gilbert (see December 2014 e-newsletter Mindful Compassion) often teaches how effective it is to do things “little and often.” Our brains learn by repetition, and small, incremental changes are easier to install and integrate into new circuitry than big, out of reach resolutions.
Try this for yourself in the coming weeks:
1. Do identify the “cathedrals” you want to give shape to in the coming year – the larger goals and larger causes that bring meaning at the end of the day -like caring for the environment or building community where you live.
2. Then do identify the action steps, the rocks you need to break to help build this cathedral: petitioning your governor and legislators to ban fracking, as I did this morning, or researching opportunities to volunteer at your local hospice, as my neighbor did yesterday.
3. Then, set the intention to see the meaning and reward in each individual step you take toward the larger picture. Because, as I’ve quoted many wise people elsewhere, we don’t always achieve the larger goal exactly as we had planned – life happens on the way to those plans and part of navigating our lives skillfully is to be flexible, able to change gears when circumstances warrant. Finding the meaning and joy in every phone call or e-mail, every connection with another human being, every dish washed or supper composted, is what helps us perceive the rocks we break as part of the cathedral we are building, and seeing progress toward the cathedral is what keeps us going all year long.