On a recent Vipassana retreat, in addition to sitting and walking meditations, we were all assigned a work meditation too — an activity we’d have to do for an hour a day that benefitted the whole community, and during which we could practice mindfulness in action.
Some people washed dishes, some did the laundry, others chopped vegetables, or swept the patios. My assignment was gardening, or more specifically — weeding. A weed is a plant that grows where it’s not wanted, I was told, so I was to aim for any that sprung up on the walking paths around the retreat center.
I was happy with the assignment. It meant I could spend time outdoors, amongst the giant pine trees, away from people, silently tending to the grounds. It felt restorative, calming, meditative indeed.
The first day, however, as I bent down to pull the first little plant out of a ground, I stopped, confused. This was a Buddhist meditation center. The first rule we were told to follow this whole week (and beyond, hopefully) was to “not intentionally harm any living creatures, not even an insect.” And yet, here I was, gloved and armed, about to kill an innocent little flower.
I sought advice from the Master Teacher, who, once he got over the confusion of why I was asking him about weeding instead of meditation, replied that yes, it is true plants are alive, but in Buddhism they are not considered equal to animals and people since they cannot breathe. So that rule of no harm does not apply to them.
You can imagine how this landed with the “crazy plant lady” that I am, but then I remembered that any cockroach that has the bad fortune to appear where it is not wanted (namely my vicinity) is immediately dealt a death sentence (lungs or no lungs), so I took all judging off the table, accepted the rule as is, and set off for the gardens.
The walking paths were simple dirt lanes, marked by thin logs lining each side. As I worked, I kept thinking — How interesting that on one side of this man-made border, a plant is a flower, left to do as it pleased. While on the other, it is a weed, destined to die.
Who placed those borders, anyway, and couldn’t they be moved at any point? So how can we label the same plant differently (effectively determining whether it lives or dies) based on something so arbitrary?
And what was I to do when I came across a really beautiful, or a really useful plant on the “wrong” side? Do I save it somehow, or do I keep a neutral attitude, treating them all the same, regardless?
After the first day I hoped I’d stop thinking of them as plants. That somehow I’d adopt this attitude that it was not my job to save them, they were doomed the moment they were born, having chosen to spring up where they did. But I didn’t.
Instead I kept thinking how our own destinies are often just as unfairly determined by something we had absolutely no say in.
How being born in a certain country, or in a certain part of town, or in a certain skin or sex or religion, suddenly marks us a “weed” to some person of authority, and we’re targeted, no matter how beautiful or useful we might actually be.
How many of those executing the “weeding” in those cases felt as conflicted as I did now, their own beliefs contradicting those of the law, and yet showing up, day after day, pruners in hand?
I’m sure a lot of them could have stopped, just like I could have here. Asked to be reassigned to some other task, or simply refused to obey, come what may. Sure, those acts take courage, but sometimes not as much as we think. Like in my case here. All it would have taken for me to stop was me asking to. And yet I didn’t.
Why? Because (and here’s the scary part) I liked it.
I liked having a task that was physical, requiring me to use my hands. I liked that it was in nature. I liked that I was quite good at it (to my surprise). But most of all I liked that it made me feel like I was contributing to the good of the community. Clearing the paths made it easier for my fellow meditators to meander through those beautiful woods on their daily walks. Besides, if not me, someone else would do it anyway — there was no escaping this fate — so at least maybe I can save a flower or two by moving the logs when I could.
And suddenly there I was, hearing myself utter the same justifications I’ve read so many soldiers, of so many different wars, say over the centuries.
How many of them felt as guilty as I did, when they realized they liked it? And did they, too, forget all about the pesky little weeds the moment they dumped them in the green recycling bins, to be picked up and disposed off by yet another order-following member of the community?
On the last day of the retreat I put away all the tools and walked the paths I’ve cleared, letting myself feel pleasure, pride, guilt, sorrow, awe, and the myriad of other emotions, all at the same time.
Until, in the end, a deep sense of compassion for all those “real life weeders” flushed through me, shocking me to no end. Me? Feeling compassion for those who eliminated, and keep eliminating, those just like me? Never in a million years did I think I’d ever feel anything but resentment and anger for them. And yet, here I am.
Blame it on the weed.