There’s an old Buddhist story about monks raking up leaves at their monastery before a visit from a revered guru.
When the guru arrives, he looks out at the beautiful grounds with an appreciative smile, then raises his hand as if to say, Hold on, just one more thing.
He walks behind a nearby shed, finds the pile of raked leaves, and gathers an armful. He walks back out front and dumps the leaves.
“Yes,” he says, now satisfied.
There are other versions of the story. Sometimes it’s an old Zen master in the neighborhood, not the visiting guru, who dumps the leaves. Other times the story is just an exchange between student and master. As the two of them walk along, the master stops to pick up a single leaf. He puts it in his pocket.
The student says, “Master, that’s just one leaf. Let me go get the rake, I’ll do a proper clean-up.”
The master stops him. “Leaves don’t fall only on the ground,” he says. “They fall in the mind. I am picking up the leaf that was in my mind. Eventually I’ll get the others too.”
In the first version, the message is basically, ‘Don’t try to be perfect.’
In the second, the lesson is about patience and emptying the mind.
Personally I like the first story. I can get obsessive about stuff, so leaves being dumped on a lawn is a nice visual reminder that ‘good enough’ is often better — and more in tune with the flow of daily life — than ‘pristine’ or ‘perfect.’
There are similar cautions against perfectionism in other religions and cultures, as the writer Kaushik Patowary explains in this essay.
Sometimes introducing intentional imperfection into art or architecture comes from a dour, moralistic, ‘Only God can be perfect’ kind of place. In other cases, the motivation is quirkier and less obvious, as with the so-called ‘spirit line’ in Navajo rugs.
Supposedly Navajo weavers believed that part of their spirit went into the rug itself, so there needed to be a little stray line which deviated from the overall pattern. This was the pathway which allowed the spirit to leave the rug and re-enter the weaver once the rug was finished.
The truth is, for a so-called hermit, I’m quite the iPhone user. I listen to an ungodly number of podcasts, I trade hundreds of texts with my nephews about either professional ice hockey or our respective Wordle results, or — in a diverting, but admittedly niche mash-up — our results playing Gordle. It’s a daily puzzle in which the answer is an active or former player in the National Hockey League whose last name is five letters long.
When I’m not playing wordgames or sending texts about wordgames, when I’m not listening to a podcast about the Northern Pacific rattlesnake or the Iberian lynx or the arrival of wolverines in Mount Rainier National Park, then I’m often listening to music on Spotify, or sending out animal-rights emails which PETA asks me to send, or watching a TEDTalk on YouTube, or spamming friends and family with whatever goddamn thing I just read, watched, or thought about.
Hey Bob, I think you might really like this story about two guys building a hiking trail in Iraqi Kurdistan!
Really I’m less of a hermit, more of a compulsive content-consumer and sharer.
I’d last about a day and a half without hi-speed internet.
Even when I put down my iPhone, then I’m often watching a hockey game on TV or reading a book about jnana yoga or the Troubles in Northern Ireland or weird cults or songbirds. Or I am boring the hell out of my wife describing one of these books.
So maybe the second Buddhist fable is actually the one I ought to be thinking about — the instruction on leaves which ‘fall in the mind.’ My mind is crowded with ideas, information, and stories. I don’t need to rake up and remove every last leaf, but a few bags worth would be a good start. At very least I could stop cramming my mind with so much new stuff all the time.
But hey, as long as I’m consuming all this content, I might as well pass along a few recommendations. Why should my poor family and friends be the only ones who get spammed?
- The Norwegian movie The Worst Person in the World. It’s in the general neighborhood of romantic comedy, but touches on deeper, more existential topics and in a totally original way.
- An interview of author Michael Lewis on the Smartless podcast. (Thanks to my friend Lara Wozniak for tipping me to it). Whether discussing the untimely death of his daughter, the genesis for his bestseller Moneyball, or a man who did early research on marine drift patterns, Lewis is a smart, curious person and a fantastic storyteller.
- The book On Animals by Susan Orlean. Usually I prefer animal-related reading with a more ideological, ethical, or spiritual bent. Instead this book is a journalistic look at animals which humans have interacted with for thousands of years, whether chickens, carrier pigeons, mules, donkeys, or dogs. Orlean, who is best known for her book The Orchid Thief, is especially entertaining describing her own farm. It’s less a farm and more a fractious menagerie of species which Orlean just enjoys being around. I laughed out loud at her account.
- The recent essay by Jonathan Haidt about social media in The Atlantic, and his subsequent interview on the same topic by host Andrew Sullivan on The Dishcast podcast. Yes, Haidt covers some of the same stuff we already know — viral sharing creates problems — but Haidt places the phenomenon in a wider context, and he isn’t entirely pessimistic. He has ideas for mitigating some of the worst side-effects of new platforms. He also has a nice way, I thought, of analyzing and contrasting conservatism and liberalism.
- The Oregon singer-songwriter Margo Cilker. Her music is sort of a folk-country hybrid, with a lyrical tilt toward melancholy themes and situations. I especially like the song “Flood Plain” on her album Pohorylle.
- The book Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe. It has the true-crime element of trying to figure out who killed single mother-of-ten Jean McConville in Belfast in 1972, but it also gives a broader look at sectarian violence and interesting public figures like IRA bomber Dolours Price, politician Gerry Adams, hunger striker Brendan Hughes, and actor Stephen Rea. An extremely readable book.
- The song “Everything’s Fucked” by the band Dirty Three. Old tune, but new to me. A haunting instrumental piece with lovely violin and electric guitar. Thanks to Lynne Englert for sending it my way.
I also liked all the other stuff which I linked to earlier in this post. So if any of that sounded interesting — trailbuilding in Iraqi Kurdistan! — then by all means check it out.
That’s all for now. Back to the ‘hermit’ life.