Practice

Meditomation

[Regarding meditation] …would love to hear/read your thoughts on it, particularly on the conflict(?) between the goal of acceptance and using meditation as a productivity tool (ie – if you’re using meditation as a means to focus and acceptance, then how do you move forward?) – Karl, in the comments

First a disclaimer: I am by no means an expert on meditation, on productivity, or on really anything else. At one point I was almost an expert on the commedia dell arte, but that’s about it. So take what follows with the understanding that it’s culled from what I’ve understood from people such as Charlotte Joko Beck, Alan Watts, Suzuki (D.T. and Sunryu), Reb Anderson, Jeanne Robinson, Brad Warner, Cheri Huber, and (of course) Leo Babauta. You’d be much better off just going ahead and putting together an Amazon reading list made up of those names, because they really know their stuff.

Still Here?*

Ok, then I guess I’ll give it a shot.

Meditating for productivity is like slicing tomatoes.

No, really, it is. Have you ever tried slicing tomatoes with a dull knife? Like, maybe on a formica counter? It’s slippery. The skin of the tomato is suddenly the same consistency as the red nubbly balls we used for dodgeball, the ones with that ringing “PTOINNNGGGG!!” sound when they hit you in the head**, and you run the blade of your knife back and forth a few times trying not to press too hard (because who wants a bruised tomato?). At the same time you’re trying to hold the round thing down on the counter, trying to ignore the slight stain of indeterminate composition right next to your hand, and also trying to keep your fingers out of the path of the blade which, you’re sure, eventually will penetrate the Skin of Infinite Bounceable Resistance.

Eventually you give up and use the point of the knife, which pierces through and lets you slice half the tomato. There’s juice now on your fingers, and it’s mingling with the Stain of Indeterminate Composition, but you rotate the tomato and slice the other half. Since you did it in two slices, they’re not completely even, but it’s all going to be eaten anyway, right? So you go ahead and repeat the process for a few more slices.

In the end, you have sliced tomatoes. You might also have sticky fingers, and you might be thinking it’s a good thing the knife was dull since the last few slices were a bit tricky, and when piercing the skin you came a bit closer to your thumb than you wanted. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience, but you have the damn nightshade sliced up and you can finally eat your salad.

Yum.

Same Edge, Different Day

This scenario may happen quite a few times. You may even have had friends or chefs you know comment on how you should really sharpen your blade (METAPHOR ALERT: “sharpen” is blogger code for “meditate”) and you’re sure you’ll get around to it, as soon as you have time. But Harvey is hungry, he keeps telling you, and the client wants to run another webinar test and your friends want to meet you at the cigar bar later which means you’ll need to make sure your jeans are out of the dryer and meanwhile, you might as well just slice the tomatoes in the same way, since, after all, it works, right?

At a certain point, after enough repetitions of that narrowly-not-sliced thumb and the messy juice all over the unevenly sliced tomatoes, you finally reach the tipping point. You tell every distraction to hold on, and you pull out the tiny crossed whetstones, and you draw the blade through.

Just a couple of times. You don’t have time for the full sharpening experience, that’s why you’re using the quick and easy method, but even so…it makes a difference. Just a little. For the first time, you draw the blade across the tomato and there’s this exquisite joy as the tool does what it is supposed to do, as it splits the skin with just a little pressure, and goes at least a half inch in before you have to put pressure on the blade. These slices are even, mostly, certainly much moreso than the ones before, and there’s not nearly as many seeds and red liquid on the counter. Your fingers, in fact, don’t even need to be washed, a quick lick-and-suck of the yummy organic juices and you’re good to go.

When you point it out to Harvey, he’s unimpressed, but he seems to enjoy the salad, anyway.

Same Sharpener, Different Day

For a while that works fine. When the blade gets dull, you run it through the quick sharpener and slice the tomato and it works well.

Then you make a date with your friend to can her tomatoes. No, that’s not some hipster metaphor, she really has a zillion tomatoes from her garden and you are going to use your hard-won cutting skills to preserve the bounty for posterity (or, at least, for the Lasagna in Winter***). To prepare for the weekend, you idly think that perhaps there may be a better way to sharpen your blades…

A little research leads you to information on oils and whetstones and leather strops and you find yourself, for the first time, running the blade along the stone. There is something pleasing about that grinding sound, that gravelly zip with the treble crescendo at the end when you take the blade off the surface. You have to concentrate harder, because you have to maintain the same angle with every stroke, lest the blade get duller, and so you focus a bit more, stroke, stroke, finding a rhythm and flow to it.

Before you know it, the doorbell rings and it’s your friend. You quickly set out the tomatoes on the cutting board (what, you’re going to spend time sharpening and not bother with a cutting board?) and bring up your knife, ready for the one-two stroke that will set these fruits on the path to the jars.

It’s amazing. Not only does the edge part the skin like a hot kni- well, never mind the similes, parts it easily, but it keeps going. None of that sawing is needed, you simply let the weight of the blade part the body of fruit and seed and juice and hit the cutting board with a satisfying thunk. As you draw the blade out, the sheer effortlessness of it is amazing, the soft vibration of the blade felt through the heel of your other hand as it holds the tomato.

That’s when your friend asks if you’re alright, because you’re just standing there staring at a tomato. You could start to talk about the blade you sharpened, about the difference it made in your tomato slicing experience – but first off, unless she sharpens her own knives, she probably wouldn’t understand, and secondly, there are tomatoes to be canned. So it’s better to just get to it. Just enjoy the fact that a sharp knife makes you feel in control of the cutting, makes you feel safer because you know where the blade is going, makes even the juices go only where you want them. Sure, you’re able to cut the tomato, but really? You’re an artist of produce, a sculptor helping the tomato find it’s true shape of gustatory perfection.

Awesome.

Forgetting the Tomatoes

The thing is, we aren’t always canning tomatoes. Deadlines happen, children need feeding, leaves need raking and blogs need writing. So even though we may remember, for a while, that joy of slicing tomatoes, it’s probable that we won’t associate the relationship between the sharpening and the action. Instead, we’ll try to have the same experience but it won’t quite match up, especially as the blade gets dull and wears down, as all blades do. We can try buying different blades, we can try using special quick sharpeners or even having others do the sharpening for us…but it won’t quite be the same. You get some of the direct benefits – your tomato slices have never looked better – and you also get the fringe benefits, like less juice to wipe up after and fewer nicks on your thumb.

But you’re missing out on that sound, that rhythm, that time you devoted to improving the tool. That act of sharpening was doing more than prepare the blade, it was also preparing you. The ability to focus on sharpening carries over into focusing on cutting, so your slices are more even, and into every bite of the tomato which tastes just that much better because you remember what the process was to get it to your mouth.****

Convinced, you now spend time, every week, sharpening that blade. And that time is time you aren’t eating the soon-to-be-rare-twinkies, or catching up on twitter. It’s time not spent raising your blood pressure. It’s time that, as the blade goes across the stone, you have more than one epiphany about what’s wrong with that paragraph. How to pay for the muffler. Whether you should keep that job or not. All from the simple tough skin of a tomato getting in your way, forcing you to finally put an edge to the steel.

But lord, what that blade can now do to carrots. To celery. To the apples you slice the same way your grandson’s great-granddad sliced them for your kids, with a blade that would have met his precise Naval-engineer specifications. Yeah, you became an avid sharpener of blades for the producti- er, I mean, for the tomatoes, but the fact is, the rest of the things happen, too, whether you planned it or not.

It may be hard to see, since we’re just talking about cutting tomatoes.

But…that’s what I think about meditating to increase productivity.

* Get it?
** or is that just me?
*** starring Peter O’Toole, Lauren Bacall, and a very young Anthony Hopkins
**** or, if you are allergic to nightshades, to the mouths of those you’re feeding.

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