Three Steps

by Sharon Gannon |
January, 2011
Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment chop wood and carry water.
old Zen saying

My first real spiritual teacher was an alchemist. By “real spiritual teacher” I mean that he consciously gave me teachings and practices to help me understand the spiritual principles underlying all of existence. By “alchemy” I mean the ancient practice of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. My teacher was a photographer by profession and his knowledge of chemistry was not only practical but metaphysical as well. I initially came to him because I wanted to know the cause of physical matter: what makes form form? Under his tutelage I studied the basic building blocks that constitute matter-the twelve cell salts. These salts, being crystalline in form, actually provide a mathematical or geometrical grid that attracts subtle vibrations and organize them into what eventually becomes manifest form. I also learned how to grow crystals in test tubes in a laboratory setting and assisted him in classical alchemical long-term projects that dealt with elemental properties of minerals, especially mercury and gold. He taught me the value of meditation and how to look deeply into ordinary things to discover essence, which included the investigation of words and their root etymological meanings. He infused our lessons with practical science, providing what he promised was an experiential connection to truth.

During this time I was also drawn to The Theosophical Library, an occult library where I spent a lot of hours reading books about yoga, saints, Eastern religions and enlightenment. Several books stand out in my memory-all biographies: The Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahamsa Yogananda, and two books by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Tibet’s Great Yogi: Milarepa and Padma-Sambhava’s biography. After I read these, I professed to my teacher that above all else I wanted to become enlightened and asked if he could help me. He raised his already very arched eyebrows and slowly with a kind smile said, “first you must master these three things, which are by the way, basic to alchemy: 1. Cooking-You have to learn how to become a good cook; 2. Cleaning-You have to learn how to keep the place where you live clean and organized; and 3. Gardening-You have to know how to grow, nurture and care for plants.”

I was incredulous at his response; it disappointed me, and at the time I wasn’t able to embrace his advice seriously as it didn’t seem “spiritual enough” for me. Cooking? I was an impatient skinny girl who found disdain in eating and was trying to reduce my food to a minimum and eventually live on air: how did he think that I could get into cooking, what possibly could be the point? Cleaning? Oh come on, that’s for housewives? I was a liberated woman! Gardening? How old fashioned-in the modern world we all live in cities; farmers grow crops, and landscapers deal with flowers and such; I’m too intellectual and spiritual for these types of pursuits. Besides, I didn’t want to waste my life in such ordinary activities; I wanted God/Self realization right then.

My teacher taught by example and could often be seen in the kitchen mindfully preparing a vegetarian meal, focusing on each moment of preparation-scrubbing carrots, slicing cucumbers or measuring out rice as if he were in deep meditation. His living space was immaculate, sparse, Zen-like, with every item carefully placed and cared for. His altar was simple but beautiful. He often reminded me how important it was not to allow clutter or dust to settle on one’s altar, as it was the mirror for one’s mind. On most windowsills in his place you could find vibrant potted plants, and in the summer he grew organic tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs in window boxes.

It took me many years to realize the wisdom of my teacher’s advice. Without mastering the seemingly ordinary basics of living, no spiritual maturity, much less real spiritual evolution, is possible. One has to first grasp the magic in the ordinary before the extraordinary dawns, and once it does the everyday is the same as it was before-only sweeter.

Teaching Tips

These three steps, or any one of them, could be focused on as it may apply to asana practice-concentration, not becoming distracted, simplifying, completing, following through-not rushing and finding the magic in the ordinary. For example:

Students: Just following the teacher’s instructions and not doing complicated variations that are not called out or invited

Students: Unconscious action: Allowing your mind to become distracted and not focused on your what you are doing-not aware of your breath or your intention.

Students: Preferring simple yoga clothes/mats/props over fancy designer ones, etc.

Students: Not pushing too far in asanas just for performance/ego reasons

Teachers: Teaching by rote as if teaching were just going through the motions-no longer teaching with passion

Teachers: Entering the classroom as if it were just a job-not acknowledging that in this moment their own enlightenment could dawn

Teachers: Becoming distracted, trying to multi-task while they are teaching a class (checking their text messages, answering a cell phone, etc.)

Teachers: Becoming disconnected with reality-not paying attention to what is right in front of them-not connecting to the students who are in the room with them; not connecting to the music that they may be playing and how it may or may not relate to the situation, telling the students to do something but then going on and on talking while the students are trying to do what the teacher has told them to do-but they can’t possibly because the teacher is distracting them by talking.

Teachers: Not striving to develop the most complicated sequences or shy away from more than 2 or 3 repetitions of one surya namaskar or other sequence-basically the things you have to do to keep something alive, or to cook or to clean.

These 3 steps can be related to asana in the literal sense-staying focused on what you are doing, but also in a more universal application: your relationship with your life, the basics-what you eat, where you live, the other living things around you. Are you relating in a way that is enhancing or not? Are you getting so far-out that you are forgetting to go far in and pay attention to what is actually happening? As John Lennon discovered when he became a “house-husband” and spent his days cooking, cleaning and caring for his baby, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” (from the Lennon song Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy))

Many times spiritual aspirants can think that they are becoming so focused on spiritual things that they not only neglect but become estranged from physical things. When this happens it actually pulls the person further away from their goal of spiritual enlightenment-the realization of the oneness of being. It also draws one back into the negative viewpoint of our culture, which has conditioned us to think of the physical as mundane and stupid and the intellectual as superior. We give the jobs of cleaning and cooking and farming to lower-class people, mostly women, and leave the jobs that are considered more important for professionals. Often times the practice of asana can also be relegated to menial labor-something you do to get in shape, as if that was less then any other activity a practitioner might do. So a teacher could use this focus to investigate the subtle aspects-areas that might get overlooked in the busyness of a yoga practice or moving through things too quickly-just to get through them and on to the next thing.

I think the message of this focus could very well be do whatever it is you are doing whole-heartedly, completely involved. Don’t stop doing your spiritual work in order to take a break to do your “other work”-to the yogi, everything is part of the spiritual work. I remember seeing how my teacher would wash dishes-each dish he handled like he was giving a bath to a newborn baby. When he would scrub the floor he would get down on his hands and knees with a cloth to wash the floor by hand, I still find that this is the best way to clean floors. He would comment that it enabled him to fully be present in the task and that it then became a ritual which resulted in not just a cleansing of the dirt from the floor but also a purification of the subtle atmosphere of the room. I’m sure he was reciting prayers or mantras to himself as he scrubbed the floor-for him housework was a spiritual practice-a form of purification. When he was cleaning, sweeping or scrubbing floors he was concentrated on what he was doing-he was careful not to distract himself by also listening to the radio or a tape recorder through headphones. When he was cooking he was fully engaged-there would be no small talk in the kitchen-all of his focus was on the meal-it was, after all, an alchemical experiment, and he didn’t want to miss one moment. He never lived in a mess. His clothes were always folded and placed carefully, and he didn’t keep extra clothes that he never wore. He kept his possessions to a minimum-“more time to meditate!” he would say! And he also never did anything that he didn’t want to do; for instance he never took a job just for the money-“how could I, this is my life!” he would say. Often, due to financial demands he did take dishwashing jobs in restaurants, but he never perceived the job as mundane, he was somehow able to elevate it in his own mind. He was certainly the most dignified dishwasher I had ever seen!

When I started to stay at my students’ homes when I was traveling, I discovered that for the most part the students were very lacking in basic skills-they couldn’t for example cook a nutritious tasty meal for themselves, me or their dog or cat, their office areas were disorganized messes and in many situations I saw plants dried up, their leaves covered in dust dying in the same room that all of this so-called important spiritual work was being done! When I would bring it up, they usually answered something like, “I’m so busy doing yoga and teaching and running a center.” Because of that experience I recalled the “3 steps” that my alchemist teacher had taught me and felt it could have relevance to these people who had become students of mine.

Some obvious connection could be made with the old adage: Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment chop wood and carry water. Or… “see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower”-William Blake

For a chant, YS 2.40 relating to shaucha could be used. It is obviously relevant to one of the steps, but in a way it is relevant to the whole idea of emphasizing the basic in order to get to the advanced. Also YS 1.1, atha yoganushasanam, would be good?looking deeper into things, not living a superficial life.

Additional thoughts on Step #3: Gardening:

Many teachers, as well as students, may express the fact that they live in apartments in dense cities where gardening is just not possible.

The concept of gardening can be stretched to included taking care of anything or anybody- feeling joy in contributing to nourishing another and seeing them blossom- becoming happy and healthy. It doesn’t have to be that you have a plot of land in your back yard and grow lots of vegetables. You could have one rosemary plant in a small pot on your kitchen windowsill, or there may be a cat or a dog whom you take the time to feed well and provide for, thus improving their lives. That cat or dog may not even live with you, but perhaps with a neighbor, or perhaps the dog or cat is homeless and lives at the local shelter and you go and visit them once a week, volunteering to take the dog for a walk or bring them some special food.

When I lived with my Alchemy teacher, I also had a cat. Her name was Eva. I did not know enough at that time to feed her well. Basically I would buy the cheapest box of dried kibbles and sprinkle them in a bowl a couple of times a day. My teacher Randy would say to me, “She is your cat, she is totally dependent upon you, you say you love her, why not at least provide her with the best food possible” I pooh-poohed him, as I felt I was doing my best. I wasn?t conscious enough to see his wisdom, but nonetheless he took it upon himself to cook for her. I laughed at him the first time I saw him kindly present her with a home-cooked meal that she graciously and enthusiastically accepted. But within a few weeks I saw her change and become much more beautiful, healthy, happy and vivacious.

The idea of gardening could also be extended to taking care of wild animals. You could feed the wild birds and/or squirrels that might live near your apartment, home or workplace–hanging a bird feeder out your window. Maybe your building doesn’t allow that, so instead you could feed the birds who live on the city streets, always remembering as you leave your apartment to bring a bag of organic seeds and nuts with you and distribute that food generously to the hungry birds and squirrels who are trying to stay alive in the midst of a city dominated by human beings.

The point is, gardening is about taking care of something or someone, deriving pleasure by contributing to their well-being and happiness.