Many years ago my brother once asked if I would help him to move house. We borrowed a large van and made an early start one Saturday morning. The first load went smoothly and we were glad that this particular van was the ‘Luton’ type with extra load space over the cab. ‘More space equals fewer trips and an earlier finish’ or so we thought but problems started with the second load. As anyone who has tried to move bulky furniture down a staircase will testify, there is a point, usually where said item is jammed half way down the stairs, when you cannot believe that ordinary mortals managed to bring it up the stairs in the first place. In Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy’, the quite plausible explanation is a brief distortion of the space-time continuum in which the staircase wall stretches and opens thus allowing beds, sofas, wardrobes to be taken up but never down the same staircase in one undamaged piece.
Eventually, after much sweat and toil, and a hole in the bathroom wall, the second load was ready to go. Trying to make up lost time we took a short cut. We approached the road tunnel under the railway in good spirits and at a good speed. We were about to be sharply reminded about that additional storage space over the cab. The top corner of the van hit the tunnel wall with a terrific bang and we bounced sharply backwards along the road like a four wheeled space hopper. Thankfully the road was quiet, there were no other vehicles involved and, apart from mild concussion neither of us was hurt. Nonetheless, rather shaken by this turn of events we slowly climbed out of the cab to assess the damage, hoping it wasn’t as bad as it had felt. It wasn’t, it was worse. The top part of the front of the van was badly crushed and the aluminium roof had peeled back like an old fashioned sardine tin, the sort you have to open with a key. We went round the back and tried to open the metal shutter. It had jammed shut but after some persuasion shot upwards and the whole steel roller, weighing a few hundred pounds, then crashed down onto the road, narrowly missing our feet. We jumped out of the way just in time to see the eggs we had saved for breakfast rolling slowly out of the back and smashing one by one onto the road.
Mother happened to live nearby and a little later we pulled up outside her house. After taking a long look at the van, at us, then quickly establishing that no one was actually hurt, she said, “Never mind, I’ll put the kettle on.” We stared dejectedly at the van. Kettle? How was that going to help? We needed a vehicle repairer not tea and biscuits. Now mother had many talents but arc welding wasn’t one of them. So we accepted tea and sympathy and a slice of Battenberg and slowly started to calm down.
Sudden, unwanted and dramatic life events can at times be a real challenge in my zen practice. Being told that such events are “a good life koan,” or that “Now! …is the time to practice” has the same flavour of being reminded that there are people in the world with much bigger problems than you. You know it to be true but it doesn’t seem to take you anywhere at the time.
But in the midst of significant life events, including accidents, illness, the sudden end of a long term relationship, a friend losing his eyesight and the other less dramatic but equally challenging events of daily existence, it is the repeated practice of zazen which helps to reveal the power of ordinary mind at work. If I allow it, this ‘nothing special’ mind has the potential to reveal, moment to moment, the right understanding or ‘skilful means’ for any given situation. It encourages me to give up my judgements and certainties about other people and life events and to let go of preferred outcomes and never happy afters. Clearing these things aside can allow a bigger picture and new creative possibilities to emerge.
Mother was glad of the unexpected visit and she knew intuitively what was needed. Sure the van was a mess but it could be repaired. A little ordinariness, hot tea and something sweet to eat was the solution to our ‘problem’. Fetch water, chop wood (or fill kettle, boil kettle), make tea. Battenberg never tasted so good.
Dedicated to Isabel, 1928-2000