Best Laid Plans

There is no force in nature like desire!

It’s been over a week since Upavana’s new wheeled dhamma center arrived at the Bamboo Grove. Nearly every day has brought another visit from friends with offerings, snacks, and chances to meditate together. Getting the salvaged camper habitable has been a chore but many hands made it light work. The encouragement was appreciated and a warm sign that others feel welcome and want to take part. A temple, after all, belongs to the community.

Between the visits, though, it’s been a test of patience. Day and night, mice come scampering out of the knotweed fields and climb the exterior walls or undercarriage of the camper. Truly, their tenacity is something to behold. They can go six hours at a stretch if they don’t find an easy entrance. And unfortunately, they are on occasion getting in.

When I stayed with Tan Santi at the Indonesian Vihara in NYC, he would often remark on how little wildlife there was in the house. No ants, no cockroaches, no mice. We both spent years in the forest and the unwelcome sounds of critters were so familiar we struggled to contemplate how a structure could stand on planet earth without them. Have you ever heard a mouse in a wall? It thrashes around so enthusiastically you’d swear it was a five-pound squirrel, but when it finally emerges inside it’s hardly the size of a ping-pong ball.

Once inside I’m not sure if they were disappointed – after all, I have no food or fluffy couches to nest inside. It’s been a very hot week and when they showed up in the main compartment they would usually just join me on the cool laminate floor of the shrine area. We would stare at each other, exasperated. Me, because I couldn’t sleep or travel on account of their incursions. Their expressions, though, seemed to say, “Ugh. It’s hot. You actually live here?!”

With a sigh I would pick them up (the animals here are remarkably docile) and toss them underhand out the front door. Slaves to their nature they would be back gnawing at the walls in less than a minute. On one occasion of tossing, the frustration got to me. “Hey! Can’t you see somebody’s already here!” Despite my annoyance, a sober voice in the back of my head responded, “You know, that’s probably what they were saying when their field was mowed.”

I stood on the doorstep, watching the mouse scamper off and contemplating the moment. There’s a lovely, melancholy Scottish poem that recreates this scene. It’s told in the voice of a farmer coming across a field mouse’s nest while he is mowing his field for hay. He pauses his task to commiserate with the mouse. The farmer, also bound by his nature, must harvest the hay to keep his animals alive through winter, but that doesn’t mean he’s ignorant to the plight of the mouse. His parting words are famous, and the inspiration for the title of a book by John Steinbeck – “Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men, so often gone awry …”

You might be surprised that I just set the mice free when I catch them. Like most of my culture, I grew up with the unchallenged notion that the appropriate response to a spider or mouse in the house was to kill on sight. Fly buzzing? Swat it. Ants at the picnic? Kill. It wasn’t overnight that I shook myself from that pattern of thought, but once I did the mindstate started to strike me as incredibly obscene. Why, out of the nearly infinite list of responses, would murder be the default? We all agree that to kill someone because they took our parking spot or grabbed the last package of toilet paper right in front of us would be too much. So why, when the being standing in the way of our plans is so small, do we see the need to smite it? It’s as if we’re saying, “I can get things exactly the way I want … if you don’t exist!”

That’s the tragedy and lie of desire: the belief that it’s getting exactly what we want that makes us happy. Only in a sterile laboratory or a math-based computer simulation do plans actually work out as intended. Out here in reality, almost every plan we make runs into the plan of someone or something else. There’s no getting around it. We need plans and goals to get through life – we couldn’t get out our front door without them. But if we want not to suffer over unforeseen obstacles, we have to learn to hold the plans themselves lightly. The results of any endeavor are only going to be part up to us – the universe will always have its say.

The farmer must hay his field despite the plans of the mice to live there. But he doesn’t need to do it with a mind of violence. His somber realization of the interweaving destinies of him and his little tenants is what elevates the moment out of conflict and into an acknowledgment of higher purpose. This time he succeeds, but in the future it’s his own plans that might go awry. After all, a mouse’s tooth is a millimeter wide but, properly wielded, it can destroy a building.

I could be upset. After all, I hadn’t planned on spending the week dropping everything and guarding the camper against a wave of curious rodents. Or did I? Zooming out, I see that my plan had been to create a dhamma center ‘close to nature’. Though unexpected, didn’t I get an appropriate result from my intention? And, what luck, I got the spiritual lesson for free.

Sagely seeing all this on my doorstep doesn’t solve the problem of the mice. No, for that I’ll need chicken wire, aluminum flashing, duct tape and a comparable measure of tenacity. But in having a heart free from aggression, a fruit of keeping the moral precepts, one can approach the point of non-suffering. As one teacher put it: “Spiritual practice doesn’t solve our problems. It dissolves them.”

The place where conflict ends, and interacting with unforeseen challenges IS part of the plan, will always be in the heart.

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