A Lifetime of Maintenance

Ajahn Karuṇadhammo • November 2013

I was looking around the monastery thinking about the tasks that we have today. I’m going to be working with a couple of other people checking out our septic system, seeing what’s going in and whether it is working properly. We’re also cleaning up different areas around the cloister. As I was looking down at the cloister construction site, I saw dug-out earth, cement, and rebar forming the foundation of what in the future will be our reception hall building.

I was reflecting on the fact that people don’t often think about, see, or experience the underside of the monastery—the buildings, operations, functions, and infrastructure. When we look at a building that’s completely built, like the monks utility building, we don’t automatically visualize or see the foundation, the earthwork, or the dug-out area. We see the building itself that’s structured on top of it. When we’re eating, washing dishes, and putting our bowls away, we don’t usually visualize the food that we eat eventually coming out of our bodies and going into the septic system. There’s the starting of different projects and repairs, but we don’t usually pay attention to them once they’ve been completed. In thinking about the beginnings and endings of these kinds of processes, what is it that we choose to experience? We view the world from what’s on the surface and what is most pleasing to the eye. We selectively attune to that aspect of an experience because that’s what we want to see. It’s naturally how we live our lives.

For the most part, we do what we need to do to get through the day, but we don’t pay attention to the aspects of existence that are unpleasant, unexciting, unattractive, tedious, routine, or mundane. We’re usually working and living our lives in a way that’s trying to get through the unpleasant and boring events, while at the same time looking forward to the pleasant bits—“the good stuff.”

As we are practicing, it can be helpful to pay attention to all of the routine maintenance and tedious tasks that we engage in, from the beginning of the day to the end of the day. Whether it’s the areas where we live, the physical surroundings, our bodies, our minds, or the relationships we have with people—we are consistently maintaining these structures. We tend to miss or skip over that whole aspect of our daily lives—the routine maintenance. If we miss it, then it’s as if we are walking through a cloud. There is the intention of experiencing the one or two moments that are exceptionally interesting, exciting, or pleasurable, but the rest of it is just a cloud. With exception to the rare high and low spots, 90 percent of our lives are the routine, “in-between” experiences. But if we can bring mindfulness to the routine and mundane aspects of the day and not be so caught up in doing something to get somewhere exciting in the future, then there’s a lot more peace and ease of mind and less desire momentum propelling us. We can settle back into a recognition of simply being here right now with whatever our experience is. This is the most pleasant and peaceful abiding we can have.