I have had so many chances to observe myself lately. Perhaps the most obvious was an assignment, recently completed for a counseling techniques class, in which I ’counseled’ a fellow student for a half-hour, videotaping the whole time. I was to use the session to demonstrate the skills I’ve been learning, making a certain number of responses from each of several prescribed categories.
Watching the video later, I was struck by how quickly I’d forgotten the prescribed responses, how immediately I’d been absorbed in my friend’s story. The first few moments there’d been a struggle in my head between attentive listening and careful attention to the assignment. Listening won, hands down. I could not hold that tension in my mind between complete presence and detached focus.
This is something I’ve wrestled with all of my life: how to serve two masters. I do so well at manual labor because there is one clearly delineated task and no gray area. Raking the yard today, pulling the leaves down into banked piles so that the grass would survive the winter and spring would bring piles of mineral-rich mulch, I felt so incredibly happy. My body was singing with the motion, my housemates would be glad to have the work done, my landlord would appreciate that we were caring for the property, we would not have to suck the fumes of a leaf-blowing service. I did see an earthworm or two scatter before the tines of my rake and wonder briefly if the soil would not be better off were the leaves left to mulch in place, but I knew that one way or another this yard would be cleared of leaves, and I preferred to do it manually. (Also, I know that it will take just a generation for this yard to return to woodland. I do not doubt that the time is coming soon.)
But not yet, and so I raked with a clear heart. Just an hour before, I’d gone to harvest twigs of black birch for an herbal self-dentistry class I was teaching. This ground was slightly more fraught. I had to pull down green branches and cut them from the tree, and I’d forgotten to bring an offering. I gathered trash from around the tree’s base instead, but even this–was I truly helping, moving trash from one point to another on the globe? (sidenote, in deference to the ‘master’ of this being, at least nominally, an herbal blog: black birch twigs make wonderful toothbrushes. Peel the bark back 1/4 inch and gently scrub the surface of each tooth and massage the gums with the peeled twig. You can use as is, or dip in salt water or powder of burned sage. Follow with an herbal rinse of sage, rosehip, and cardamom left to steep in boiling water overnight.)
We are faced with thousands of tiny questions a day, miniscule weighings of harm against good. I doubt we are even conscious of most of them. Often, appetite or routine answer for us before we even register the debate. But it is there, and sometimes it is between two poles of such importance that it tears us apart. Whether it could possibly be worth it to leave my children to be raised by someone else for several days a week so that I can study. If the work I do for money would be better spent writing, or creating. If planning an elaborate party for my son justifies the attention and time it takes away from him. Whether I can cancel a visit with one friend to attend to the heartbreak of another.
When more than one idea is pulling at us, it hurts. It hurts not knowing if our actions are beneficial. It hurts not knowing if we’re moving in the right direction. And it hurts when a decision that brings good to one area of life casts shadows over another.
I thought about this as I raked, and I thought about all of the traditions that teach us to discipline the mind. What does this mean, really? It means you become your own master. It means that the debates have an arbiter, and that arbiter is you. It means there is one defined, clear belief system to which you adhere, that guides your response to each and every one of these demands on your time and energy.
I thought about that, and I thought about how much of my life is conducted carelessly, not guided by my true intentions or desires. I thought about how often, when faced with a difficult decision between two actions, I cave to the side that complains the loudest, or requires the least of me.
A teacher once told me that if I want to know where my priorities really are, to look at my calendar and my checkbook. Where is my money going? Where is my time going? How many of those scheduled blocks in my calendar would stand up to serious soul-questioning?
What would it look like, to develop self-mastery? To write out all that is of worth to me and build a belief system based on defending it? To answer these daily questions with my own clearly discerned concept of where I want to go, and what will take me there? To live, not pulled apart by competing pressures, but integrated, knowing where I am going and why?
There is a note on my door that asks: how am i making medicine of my life?
Which masters am I serving, and why?