By John Author
I’ve said several times that practice boils down to just one thing, and each time I say it, that one thing is different.
That’s either because my nomad mind makes tools and tosses them aside when they’re no longer useful, or because there are several one things, any of which could take us all the way. Odds are, it’s a little of both.
Today’s one thing is, respect. When I’m out and about, haphazardly fumbling my way through civilization’s razor-wire hula-hoops, it seems like the Three Poisons rest on profound disrespect. We disrespect nature, each other, our ancestors and ourselves. We don’t consider each other’s experiences and points-of-view; we don’t savor sensations nor appreciate the causes and conditions behind our lives.
Mindfulness could just as easily be called respectfulness. When I respect something, I pay attention to it. I contemplate it, appreciate it and maybe even feel a sense of wonder as I give it room to breathe.
I don’t get into conflicts with people very often. I’m usually the guy trying to end a conflict. However, I have no problem swearing at an inanimate object that isn’t fulfilling its primary duties. I’ve flipped off a lot of computers, and I once sawed a mop handle in half because it wouldn’t release the mop head, “There! Problem solved!”
When I was younger, I had no problem throwing games and toys across the room if they aggravated me. I’d immediately feel guilty when I remembered that my mom bought them for me, so I’d run over and make sure that the whozawhatsit was undamaged. But if my respect doesn’t include these inanimate objects, then my respect is incomplete—it’s dualistic and ignorant.
These words are also dualistic, that’s why it’s recommended that we don’t cling to them. Also, the advice to refrain from clinging to them is dualistic as well.
When I threw that video game across the room, I was disrespecting everyone that spent their time creating it. I was disrespecting their lives and everything that’s a part of their lives: their hopes, dreams, hardships, loves, hates, and their entire story from birth to that very moment and beyond.
Indigenous people respected the plants and animals they consumed. They gave them divine seats in their pantheon. Hunter-gathers and hunter-collectors understood that life is a dynamic relationship, that in and out intermingle in a dance of mutual dependence.
We forgot this fact at some point. Maybe we chose to forget it.
It’s easier being disrespectful. It lets us live in a kind of daze where our attention is completely self-involved and our actions thoroughly self-serving. Respect means that we remain present, but time flies when we space out. Caught up in the workaday life, most of us desperately want time to fly. Eventually, our entire lives are approached with a, “Let’s get this over with,” mentality.
Disrespect gives us free reign to speed along, gorge, and tune out. All three of those activities are highly addictive and the feelings that accompany them mirror the satisfaction and sedation of opiates. We, as a species, are literally addicted to ignorance—not because it feels good, but because it’s careless. Respect means that we care and that we’re careful. We’re careful with our loved ones, with our words and actions, and even with the inanimate tools that we’re using. Respect means we chew slower, drive like less of a douchebag, and tune into the situation.
Understanding ushers in respect, respect fuels attention, and attention increases understanding. It’s a perpetual cycle, but it’s so delicate. If any of those pieces go missing, then the whole thing collapses.
When someone’s new to practice, I like to ask, “What are you looking for? How far are you willing to go?” How far can I stretch respect? Can I come to even respect the things that I despise? Can I respect my own aversion, or is it something that I can’t bare to understand? We could ponder enlightenment as complete respect, overflowing respect. So much freaking respect that the mind gives up on drawing lines.
Such profound respect is like that Sims cheat code that raises everything to a hundred percent.
When I officially practiced Zen, ango (a period of intense practice) was all about cultivating respect, patience and gratitude. We were encouraged to say, “Thank you,” to everything—including unpleasant things. It’s a fun challenge, trying to say, “Thank you,” after you stub your toe while blindly lurching toward the coffee pot. Or if you’re a janitor who finds a pair of shit-caked underwear stuck to the wall.
But that’s the thing about the understanding-respect-attention triad: you can start anywhere. If any of those pieces are practiced openly and diligently, then it naturally strengthens the whole. Where do you want to start? How far are you willing to go?
All that said, I’m far from perfect. Just the other night I was throwing a dust mop around trying to get the mop part on it. I eventually threw the whole thing in the garbage (which felt great and got a laugh out of the guys). I came back to it later, fished out the nuts and bolts, and approached it in a slightly less manic way.
In that case, I couldn’t understand how someone could give us dust mop heads not designed for the dust mop frames that we use. So I lost my respect, and then frustration clouded my attention. That made the task even more difficult and resulted in cranking my frustration up to 11.
I had to walk away, cool down and bring my attention back to the present moment. Yet even when I chilled out, I still couldn’t get it on. Finally, a co-worker helped me out. It took two of us to get the clean mop head on there.
I had friends and co-workers around me when I was initially trying as well, but who wants to pet a rabid dog?
Editor: Dana Gornall