Useless Acts

stones"Nothing is ever a complete waste of time....

But some things come pretty close."

For some reason that quote helped me cope with the difficult emotions I had as an exchange student 23 years ago. I guess it was the "look on the bright side--with doubt" sense of humor.

All Jews eat matzos at Passover. The ritual act is rich in meaning, everyone agrees, but what that meaning is--is perpetually up for debate. For instance: When you are in a hurry, you don't actually have to let the bread rise. You can complete something without actually completing it. Freedom is more important than yeast multiplying.

In order to qualify as matzos the water and flower mixture must go into the oven within 18 minutes of touching water. Fair enough, whatever the meaning of the ritual is, speed and timing are key elements. But orthodox practice goes further. Water can not touch the wheat from the moment it is harvested to the moment it is in the oven.

So the wheat must be guarded the whole time. Seems like a useless job. If they gave it to me, however, I would use the opportunity to practice my gongfu.

My gongfu practice has gotten me through an enormous number of otherwise boring situations. I had a "maintenance" job years ago which was a 6 hour day, but I could do the work in 3 hours so the rest of the time I just practiced my gongfu in a large storage locker looking out over the water. I kept a broom to lean on nearby in case anyone came looking for me. I also got arrested in an airport once because the airport was completely fogged in and I could think of nothing better to do than practice my forms.

Surely one of the most useless thing I've ever done happened in Japan. I was with a group studying tea ceremony (along with budo, dance, & calligraphy) everyday for two months at a Shinto school which had us put on a slightly different outfit for each class. On this particular day the tea teachers had us come one hour early to learn how to clean the tea house.

Each of us got a job. They gave me a white plastic 5 gallon bucket filled with clear water and a scrub brush. Then they took me out into the garden and showed me a pile of medium sized smooth river stones. "Clean the stones," was my instruction, "I will return in 45 minutes." So I knelled down picked up a stone dipped my brush in the water and started scrubbing. But the stone was already perfectly clean.

After scrubbing a few stones in occurred to me that I had no idea how long I should scrub each stone. Since the stones were already clean, there was no intrinsic measure, I could have scrubbed one stone for the entire time or just scrubbed the air around all the stones. As were, I got to about my 30ith stone and realized that I hadn't made a separate pile for my "cleaned" stones, I was just as likely to be picking up a stone I had already scrubbed.

So I sat and scrubbed and thought about what meaning this act could possibly have. And then it occurred to me that it might have no meaning at all. That it was simply a useless act.

Yet tea ceremony, that day included, was a total joy to do. We don't actually need meaning to find fulfillment.
I think that lesson (a lesson I guess I taught myself) has served me well all of these years of martial arts training. I'm happy practicing without any goal or meaning, without achievement, or knowing why.

Call me unimaginative if you want, but I can not imagine why anyone would want to miss a day of practice. I guess uselessness reveals something about my true nature.