What I Learned from a Buddhist Monk: Doing Everything is Doing Nothing

When a visitor to a Buddhist monastery commented to one of the monks that all they seemed to do was eat and drink and walk about, the monk replied, ''Yes, so it appears. But when we eat, we eat; when we drink, we drink; and when we walk, we walk.'' His point was that, whatever activity in which they were engaged, they did it with full attention to that activity. As they ate, they tasted and savored each bite. As they walked, they felt the ground beneath their feet, the multiplicity of muscles in their legs moving them forward. They were doing what I like to call mono-tasking, fully doing one thing at a time.

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While there may be nothing overtly religious about what the monk said, his words have remained with me as a key religious insight, and one which has implications for how we live, how we pray, and how we lead thankful lives before our Creator.

If all of life is a gift—and it most certainly is—then all the gifts that make up what we call life should be received and treasured as presents from the Creator. But it is not so. We may thank the Lord for the food upon our table, but do we taste it, do we savor the gift, or are we in such a rush to get on to “things that matter” that we are no different than swine at the trough? We may thank God that we have a job, but while we are engaged in our vocation, are we really engaged, or are our hearts and minds already on the drive home, the next vacation, the fight we had with our spouse that morning? We go to church, where God himself is present, talking to us, beckoning us into his presence, feeding us the feast of heaven, but we are surreptitiously checking our cell phone, noting the extra short skirt in the fifth pew, wondering who will win the football game that afternoon, or just praying the preacher will sit down and shut up already. We eat, but not really. We work, but not really. We go to church, but we are anywhere but in the presence of our Father in heaven, who has come down to earth…to be ignored. If all of life is a gift, we all too often unwrap it unthankfully, with our attention pulled so many directions, that the gift itself is mocked.

Some weeks back, while I was driving, I was listening to the book of Psalms on my iPod, trying to pray along with the ones I had memorized. Traffic was heavy that day, and, suddenly, a driver cut me off. I swerved at the last second and narrowly escaped a disastrous wreck. As “Bless the Lord, O my soul…” entered my ear, out of my mouth spewed, “You f---ing idiot!” And in that instant, I heard hell laugh and heaven sigh at the fool I was. There I was, praying the Psalms, but I wasn’t praying. I was just going through the motions, and multitasking my way to a humiliating moment of self-discovery.

There is something to be said for simplicity, for doing one thing at a time, and doing that thing in such a way that you do it with all your heart. I daily fail in this, but I strive to do better, to live in such a way that every day, every activity, is received as a gift that is worthy of all my attention for it comes from a God who has given me, and still gives me, his all.