WHEN I WAS 24, I was having a chat with my dad. I had been reading an article about the legend of Shaolin monks walking through monastery walls. The story was that these monks had, more or less, meditated themselves through the solid stone.
I was full of how amazing this was – imagine if people were so enlightened that they were able to defy the laws of physics? My dad listened to me intently. Then he said: “That’s grand but who’s going to dig the spuds? Someone was diggin’ the spuds while them boys were gettin’ themselves through walls. Someone always has to dig the spuds.”
He was right, of course. There are people who commit long hours, days, years to their spiritual life; those who spend that time in silent meditation. According to the stories and legends, those people might, eventually, walk through a wall. However, those people still need to eat, drink and clothe themselves. In short, someone is digging their spuds for them because they’ve been sitting around meditating for the last ten years.
There are people who commit to their spiritual life but continue to do the day-to-day tasks for themselves, of course – Zen monks, for instance, tend to use general life tasks as part of their practice. However, no matter how simple the life you are leading, if you have removed yourself fully from normal life to pursue esoteric matters, be in no doubt that someone, back in the real world, is digging your spuds for you while you stand on your head.
Bringing it to the world
So, I’ve been thinking about the flip side of this. Another wise man whom I have encountered, Ken Jones, a political activist and leading light of the socially engaged Buddhism movement, explained that, for him, meditation without ‘taking it off the prayer cushion’ was almost pointless. After a long struggle with Zen practices, he decided that he needed to take his inner life into the world. He feels that anyone engaged in spiritual practices should bring what they’ve learned back into the real world. Conversely, though, he feels that without the inner work, your real world work, doesn’t work.
He cited the fact that so many very worthy movements and organisations ultimately fail in their aims. While the people who are involved are active and have the best of intentions, without those individuals doing some kind of inner reflective work on themselves, they become ineffective in the outer world eventually. People’s emotional baggage, their history, their lives, mean that, without a pause for reflection upon their actions and reactions, people act upon their own individual inner needs, at some point.
So now, it seems to me, that a balance is needed. A practical balance that is suited to this modern western lifestyle. Philosophical musings are grand but, again, who’s digging the spuds? Put simply, I’d bet there’s no woman sitting in Darfur navel gazing about how to walk through a wall or how to breathe into her hypertonic pelvic floor. That woman is digging the spuds, while I have the luxury of sitting here thinking and writing (and possibly boring everyone to tears).
As a yoga teacher, I have to consider that before ever stepping on a mat to practice there are the some precepts that we ought to bear in mind – like having gratitude and practising non-violence. We need to remember that it is these precepts that we must internalise before we step onto the mat. When we get up and leave, we need to take them with us.
Find your own ‘yoga’
Yoga without taking what you are learning back out into the world is pointless. Similarly, living and working in the real world is pointless without a pause, no matter how short, to check in with yourself. Your motivations, your feelings, your body. All of these are important, and those moments of reflection and tuning out the hustle and bustle will make you a more effective person in your general life. Most of us simply do not have the time, to spend hours in meditation or doing sun salutes. Those who do, hopefully, will bring what they’ve learned back to the rest of us. We need to find the balance between spud digging and walking through walls.
Not all of us will practise yoga as we know it in the west. The aforementioned great philosopher, Paddy Birdy, (AKA my dad), does his yoga in the form of sitting at a lake, fishing. There’s not a hope in hell of finding him chanting Om and sticking his leg behind his head. Not wanting to do myself, a yoga teacher, out of business, but your yoga might be just while you’re sweeping the floor, to really sweep the floor and nothing else. Don’t think about anything else, just really be sweeping that floor. If dancing is your thing, do that. Really, just be dancing.
Find your yoga and take your time out. Then go back to digging your spuds and I’ll warrant you’ll be much better at it.
This article first appeared on The Journal.ie years ago. Apologies for the blogging laziness but needs must. The Journal edited with a heavy hand too. So be aware the cut-out bits were far more insightful and terribly funny altogether.
Here’s the link to the original publication