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Samu: Work As Spiritual Practice

By Joanne Hunt

In the house where I used to live I often watched out the back window of my ground floor office where there was a children’s playground. It was a closed in small area probably no more that 40 X 30 feet where the children attending a private school would play during lunch and breaks. But early in the morning I was most interested in watching a custodian who worked there. Each morning he would methodically rake the sand, pick up garbage left by errant teenagers overnight and place items back in the spot where he knew they were meant to be. I never met him. I just watched him as I sipped my steaming coffee early in the morning. He reduced suffering in my world. His careful attention, his obvious care, his mindful attending – I watched him. He never hurried. He noticed things. And every once in a while, he would stop, lean on the rake and just listen. My windows were open. I didn’t know what he was listening to. The wind? The silence? His own heartbeat? I don’t know. I sat wrapped up in my own pressing To Do List as I took another drink of coffee noticing his rhythm.

Each day I vowed to be more mindful. Vowed to not take up so much space on the planet. Vowed to be aware of my own breath. And it would come and go throughout my days. Most days were pretty good. Some days were completely insane. And still, he was there. Each day.

There are Zen teachers who speak about this quality of attending. Samu: work as spiritual practice. Be washing the dishes when you wash the dishes. Be cooking when cooking. When in conversation, be in conversation. When with your client, be with your client. When writing a practice, be fully in the writing of the practice. Nothing left over. No exertion. No effort. Just attending. No attachment. No good or bad practice. Just practice.

After years of practice, I still find it hard. I still prefer some “Samu” over others. I still prefer activity where I find meaning and solace versus other activities that feel more removed. Even when I know it will alleviate suffering, I still have preferences. I would rather settle in by the fireplace with a good book and cold Guinness than head downstairs to the treadmill. I still have my preferences. Although in my head, I hear my teacher, “When it is time for the treadmill, go to the treadmill. No resistance. Just attend.” Some part of me gets that. Really, I do. Some part of me resists. So goes most New Years Resolutions.

The ultimate practice: Returning to my practice.
Can I head to the treadmill with my Guinness and walk today instead of run?
Bargaining with whom I wonder.

And I know that somewhere there is a custodian sweeping, reducing the suffering of the children, their teachers and others in his attentive care of their environment. They may not know it as such, they may not hold it as such and still there it is each day. Perhaps he knows it; perhaps he knows he is reducing suffering. Perhaps he is simply focused on reducing his own suffering day to day. Or perhaps he doesn’t mull and dwell on things like I do.

Either way, I miss seeing him from the window of my new house.

© Joanne Hunt

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