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Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

One Bird One Stone

Finding the right pace to cycle at in Amsterdam takes time. First, you must cycle often. Then you need to try different speeds.

It may sound prescriptive, but there is a right way and a wrong way to cycle through the city. I can spot someone on a bike who is not a local from half a canal away. And that’s not just because the locals are giving them a wide berth. Figuring out the city by bike is not a matter of me telling you what’s right or wrong. You have to learn it yourself. It’s something that comes from experience and feeling.

At some point, you find the speed of the city and cycling clicks into place. You don’t want to sprint through Amsterdam. You can get some speed up, for sure, but the tempo is generally slower. One foot. Then the next. Woosh. Woosh. One then another. It feels natural and satisfying. The city flows past you and the bridges sweep you up. And then down.

What it feels like, when you get it right, is a small freedom.

A Modern Koan

A koan is a kind of spiritual riddle used to help Buddhists in their search for enlightenment. Zen masters give a koan to students for them to work on. These paradoxical questions often come in the form of stories about old teachers and their students. More recently I came across a story from Mel Weitsman, a student of Suzuki Roshi, that stuck with me. It’s the perfect example of a modern Koan:

One day he showed me how to wash a kimono, inching around the entire perimeter using the part held in one hand to scrub the part held in the other, until the whole thing was finished. One time he said, “You have a saying, ‘to kill two birds with one stone,’ but our way is to kill just one bird with one stone.”

The whole idea of a Koan is that it does not require a long or intellectual explanation. In fact, most koans are impossible to answer in this way. All the intellect and thinking one might do to understand it must fail. Only then are we left with a true insight. Maybe we feel it instead of knowing it. Of course, there’s a big difference there.

So is it useful for me to write about ‘one bird, one stone’? Probably not. If the story above is to provide you with anything, it will be because you spend time with it. Working it over and thinking it through. You will create the insight. Not the words that I write here.

Instead, I have a few exercises I’ve been practising this week after contemplating Suzuki’s words:

  • Try to do one thing and only one thing. Think of nothing else while doing it.
  • Do something manually that you would usually automate.
  • Try to be a master craftsman at even the most mundane of tasks. How could you clean the toilet most effectively and with the least waste? Is there a simpler way to take out your trash? How can you brush your teeth more carefully?
  • Next time you get bored or frustrated with a task, stop and try to examine where that impulse is coming from. Decide to continue a little longer. See how long you can do this for.

The Morning Ritual

Waking up and washing the dishes. Each morning there are dishes to be unloaded. We wait until bedtime to put the dishwasher on, that means we capture all the tea mugs and other bits of crockery still being used late at night. While we drift off to sleep, the machine gets to work. My work continues when I wake.

I first started making this small cleaning ritual part of my routine after reading an interview with Tim O’Reilly. Zen masters, he points out, say to ‘Chop wood. Carry water.’ so his version is:

“Make tea. Empty dishwasher. Hang laundry.”

The first thing I do is practical and in service of the greater household. The centre of your day is established. It’s easy to get caught up in mindlessly going through your day. To hurry through it and let your mind wander. The simplicity of stopping and doing something practical is what makes it effective.

When we think of a monk’s path toward enlightenment, we might imagine her sitting on a cushion in deep meditation. But this is one part of the practice. What use is it to be in deep meditation all the time, pondering big questions? That’s just navel-gazing. To live is to require some form of work in your life.

In a Zen monastery, each monk is given a role and associated tasks to perform in service of the community. Mindful work is called Samu. This is as important as her meditation practice. A monk who thinks she has found some kind of spiritual insight but fails to do her work diligently is a monk en route to disappointment.

So every morning I am unloading the dishwasher. I aim to do it well. I watch to make sure each knife finds its place. That each bowl is turned over and patted dry before being stacked away. It’s not about speed, it’s about being careful and considerate. Some mornings I bash a few things, still half asleep. This quickly wakes me up and brings me back to my purpose.

Reasons not to stop

Reach a certain level of fitness and you’ll find a meditative rhythm in the act of running. In order to run you’ve got to engage all these systems in one activity that propels you forward. The harder you pump your arms the quicker you’ll lift your knees and the faster you’ll move. Each breath is synchronised to fit around the movements of the body.

As you go further this perfect cycle of breathing and running begins to break apart one step at a time. Legs get heavy. Breath gets short. It becomes harder to keep the whole thing going. This is when the mind starts to complain, a little at first and quietly too. Then it gets louder and more convincing.

‘Why bother with this right now, you could stop right here and walk the rest of the way back?’

‘How about we just walk that small stretch of pavement, who’ll care?’

The mind becomes tired quicker than the body. And so any runner must contend with an internal dialogue about what to do next and why. For beginners, this is often a short conversation because the mind wins very quickly. Anyone who had run a marathon may have contended with these discussions for hours. This is where the meditative qualities of running come to the fore.

To continue running, forget the watch and the number of kilometres left to complete. Focus everything on this breath. This step forward. Nothing more than the movement you are making now. There is a stretch of pavement before you, 1 meter by 1 meter. It keeps changing. This is your canvas to work on, everything else is just a distraction.

This is one bird, on breath, one stone, one step. You finish the run. Stretch your legs. You drink water.