I have been reading a book called The Barn at the End of the World: the Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd by Mary Rose O’Reilley. It has been my companion for months now. I am reading very slowly, savoring each chapter as a separate essay, which it lends itself to very well. The author writes about her time with Thich Nhat Hahn at Plum Village as well as her time working with sheep in a barn. My birthday reading included this passage of notes she took on one of Thay’s dharma talks:
“Koans are buried deep in the unconscious, watered carefully like flowers. They do not respond to intellectual reasoning. Mind has not enough power to break the koan. It should not be answered, but absorbed and waited for in right mindfulness until it explodes and wakens again in the conscious mind as a flower. What did you look like before your mother gave you birth? …
“At Plum Village, our basic koan is What are you doing? The answer is Breathing and smiling. Often I ask a student, What are you doing? Often the student responds, Cutting carrots. I say, Good luck. Now, you don’t need luck to cut a carrot, but you need luck if you are going to get your practice back on track.”
My life is a koan. My life with Steve is a koan on live chat. Our relationship doesn’t always respond to intellectual reasoning. We want to be able to express our irrational emotions and learn about each other from them. We want to move through adventures and experiences and be aware of ourselves and each other in the moment. We want to be present, to “show up” with a genuine answer to the question, What are you doing? And we want to look up. We’re working on it, and we are truly glad to be doing so. And sometimes, I realize that it’s easier simply to cut carrots. And that’s a mystery, too. “How wonderful. How mysterious. I draw water. I carry wood.”
My birthday evening was beautiful. I came home to find flowers delivered — two arrangements! I opened a bottle of champagne, cooked dinner, listened to music, and let myself loose until I was sobbing all over Steve. I felt very alive.
And today, I want to check things off my “To Do” list, eat bad food quickly and hide from my partner. Is there a reason?