Meet Your New Dharma Teacher…Mr Tomato.
In a world that faces mass starvation and ecological disaster it is easy to call Mister Rotting Tomato a luxury problem. Yet facing your new teacher can help you train facing the suffering of all sentient beings. By opening up to all things broken, dirty and out-of-place, we find the doorway to our uncontrollable, raw, tender and magical lives.
Today my home resembles one of those military obstacle courses where you have to crawl through barb-wired muddy grounds and rope swing over a ditch while being screamed at by a roaring, spitting, bald commander. I just literally stumbled over the dirty clothes in my bathroom. Slightly dazed, I catch my fall by clasping onto the door handle with my right hand that turns out to hang loose in the door, which is not closed, launching myself into my hallway, where hopping on one leg I land in the midst of my paper bag full of organic vegetables and a further battlefield of dirty laundry. Once I survived the hallway, I plow through an explosion of scattered handbags, groceries, dried up porridge bowls, a sock that my dog Eddie stole, more clothes, books, magazines and half-eaten chocolate bars.
My notebook -my goal since I’m a writer- is in sight. I am being pinged. Despite stubbornly trying to ignore it, I see my Smartphone’s new mail message flashing fervently in the corner of my eye. Through utter perseverance I reach out and grab my notebook. I manage to dig a pen up from between the cushions of the couch and flip it open, facing a threatening white page. It feels like the clearest space of my entire home and life at that moment. That space is so intimidating that I can’t even sit down with it. So as I write this I am standing in the middle of my living room next to the drying rack stacked with long dried pieces of underwear and cheerfully dangling clothes hangers.
Anyone who has ever tried to write, sit, or whatever practice you may have that fuels your life knows from experience that there are always things more urgent. The heating must be turned up, the dog needs to be walked, the car’s right flasher needs fixing, the bedroom curtains really need to be opened after four days of concealing an unmade bed, friends in distress should be called, reading, blogging, cooking, shopping, Twittering and yoga should be done, backups should be made, fourteen voice mail messages checked, the dog’s vomit should be scraped off of the doormat, all sentient beings must be saved, the sticky handle of the cupboard cleaned, proposals submitted, Facebook should be updated and last but not least The Email Inbox Must Be Confronted. And I don’t even have kids, I think to myself. This thought is immediately followed by a sense of guilt for feeling bad about my to-do list when in other parts of the world people are being trafficked and animals slaughtered. Then I feel guilty about feeling guilty for that, which reminds me to add that loving-kindness practice to my to-do list.
Sounds familiar? Often, I find this daily run on my domestic obstacle course almost too ordinary to take notice. Yet lately, being a freelance writer working at home a lot, I’ve been on to something. I’ve discovered the great obstacle ánd potential of our everyday dirt. I’ve been exploring the most basic jungle of obstacles and rancidity where we all spend a gigantic amount of our time. I’ve started to suspect that which keep us from doing the things we want most -intensifying a meditation practice, finally starting that memoir, becoming active in your community- aren’t only our untouched dreams, our smelling fears and molding uncertainties. They certainly play their part. But do not underestimate the existential power of a clogged shower drain, the dominance of a smelly trash bin so full that it no longer closes. They hold a ridiculously ordinary but underestimated spell on us.
Observing their power, I’ve come to believe that the most important relationship on the spiritual path isn’t the one with inspiration and silence, but with dots of hairs dazzling across the living room floor and cell phones ringing. The biggest challenge is to take your seat in the middle of a clogged house, moving a plate of food remnants an arm length away to put –in my case- a notebook down, and write. Regardless of how difficult and dirty that may be.
Because if you are able to sit or write or draw or listen to someone in the heart of the most basic dirt of your life, you create a relationship with matter out of place itself. With everything unfinished, imperfect, and clogged within yourself. Because your life isn’t that different from a house exploded with whining children, lack of maintenance and molding leftovers. Sickness, old age and death are the only securities we have. We can clean and organize all we want, but ultimately trying to stay in control is an uphill battle. Our most well-known house, our body, will wither and rot away.
Of course this doesn’t mean falling into a nihilistic state and never vacuuming again. The art of living is doing everything as wholeheartedly as you can while knowing it doesn’t matter at all -and at the same time realizing it’s the most important thing going on in the universe. While mastering this strange dance of Life, we do have the tendency to exclude our dirty laundry or soaked macaroni in the kitchen sink. They cannot be part of the path to awakening we unconsciously say to ourselves when we fall into the trap of thinking we need to organize our entire wardrobe before we can sit down to meditate.
Falling into that trap too often means missing a very intimate opportunity to train compassion. If compassion means sharing the same space with someone or something, the best place to start may be our dirt jungled homes. The extent to which you can enter into a relationship with the rotting tomato in your fridge is the extent to which you become resilient, strong and compassionate in an imperfect life. If you can muster up the strength to be in the presence of dirty dishes and unanswered calls, you will be more available to others in the middle of loss and crisis.
And it gets even better. Besides from being the perfect bodhisattva gym, looking the most ordinary dirt in the eye magically turns it into fuel on your life’s fire. If you can refrain from cleaning and covering up your life just a little longer than you’re used to, your everyday dirt gets the chance to turn into an inexhaustible source of magic. Looked upon with attention instead of irritation, the dirt and discomforts in your home become silent witnesses of your life. Evidence that it there has been lived, loved, fought, bled and eaten. The wandering glass in your home cracks open a story about a disastrous date in 2003. The hairs in the shower drain launch you into memory about a steamy shower session with your lover. The weird assembly of a molded cracker, deserted magazine and that missing blue button under your sofa turns into a crime scene that is waiting to be investigated by you. They are all proof of your brief, outrageous, mysterious existence.
These silent witnesses contain enormous energy, a fire that can be extinguished or erased immediately, or something that can be felt, lived and described first. And you are the only one that can do that. You are the primary witness of your life. If you do not tell us how that piece of tempeh got between the refrigerator and the stove, no one in the history of mankind ever will. These stains, holes and leftovers remind us of the parts of ourselves that are broken and forgotten. These cracks are the openings to the fire of our One Great Life. Don’t miss them.