We live in a Type A world. And sometimes, that’s to our detriment.
According to one definition, Type A is achievement oriented, competitive, fast-paced and impatient.
All of that pretty much sums up the environment we live in. But you know what’s hard to find in a Type A world? Your Zen.
I know what you’re thinking -- “I didn’t peg Gord for a Zen-seeking kinda guy.” And you’re mostly right. I’m not much for meditation. I’ve tried it -- it’s not for me. I’ll be honest. It feels a little too airy-fairy for my overly rational brain.
But I do love cutting the grass. I also love digging holes, retouching photos in Photoshop and cleaning pools. Those are some of the activities where I can find my Zen.
For best-selling author Peggy Orenstein, she found her Zen during COVID – shearing sheep. She shares her journey in her new book, “Unraveling: What I Learned About Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World’s Ugliest Sweater.” Orenstein has a breezy, humorous, and self-deprecating style, but there are some deep thoughts here.
In reading the book, I learned it wasn’t the act of shearing where Peggy found her Zen. That’s because sheep shearing is really hard work. You can’t let your mind wander as you wrestle 200 to 300 pounds of Ovis aries, holding a buzzing, super-sharp set of sheers while trying to give it a haircut.
As Orenstein said in a recent interview, “Imagine you were in a ballet with Nureyev and nobody told you the steps. That was what it felt like to reach shearing sheep, you know, for the first time.”
No. You might find a lot of things in that activity, but Zen isn’t likely to be one of them. Orenstein finds her Zen in a less terrifying place, cleaning poop out of the newly shorn wool. She did it the way it’s been done for centuries, in a process called carding. While she carded the wool, she would “Facetime” her dad, who has dementia.
In the interview, she said, “You know, I could just slow down. These ancient arts are slow. They're very slow and (I would) sit with him and just be next to him and have that time together and sing.”
When I heard her say that in the interview, that hit me. I said, “I have to read this book.” Because I got it. That slowing down, that inner connection, the very act of doing something that seems mindless but isn’t – because doing the act creates the space for your mind to think the thoughts it normally doesn’t have time to do. All that stuff is important.
To me, that’s my Zen.
Now, unless you’re a Mahayana Buddhist, Zen is probably nothing more than a buzzword that made its way westward into our zeitgeist sometime in the last century. I am certainly not a Buddhist, so I am not going to dare tell you the definitive meaning of Zen. I am just going to tell you what my version is.
For me, Zen is a few things:
I think these Zen acts have to contribute to the world in some small way. There has to be something at the end that gives you a sense of accomplishment – the feeling of a job well done.
Maybe that’s why meditation is not for me. There is not a tangible reward at the end. But you can look at a pile of newly shorn fleece or a lawn neatly delineated with the tire tracks of your lawnmower.
The brain must be engaged in a Zen task, but not too much. It needs some space to wander. Repetition helps. As you do the task, your mind eventually shifts to auto-pilot mode. And that’s when I find Zen, as my mind is given the license to explore.
I think this is where step one is important – whatever you’re doing has to be useful enough that you don’t feel that you’re wasting time doing it.
Finally, it helps if your Zen tasks are done in a place where the Type A world doesn’t intrude. You need the space to push back interruption and let your mind wander freely.
I realize there are some of you who will immediately connect with what I’m saying, and others who won’t have a clue. That’s okay.
I think that’s the magic of Zen: it’s not for everyone. But for those of us who understand how important it is, we sometimes need a little reminder to sometimes go seek it. Because in this Type A world, it’s becoming harder to find.