I am writing this post sitting on the floor in front of the wood stove, waiting for the house to heat up. It’s about ten degrees (celsius) inside at the moment – same temperature as outside. I was away working for two days and so the house hasn’t been heated since Tuesday night. Turns out, the furnace at our new place doesn’t really work and now I’m not sure if I want to get it fixed or not.
So I’m practicing living without central heat, at least for a few weeks, to see what that’s like for us. We have a wood stove that if run all day, actually does heat things up fairly well. When run only in the evening, it heats the downstairs, but we’ve got hot water bottles and a space heater for the bedroom. The way I figure, it makes no sense to heat 2400 square feet with forced air electric, when it’s just Brian and I – and often (like this weekend) just me alone. We spend all of our main time in the living room with the stove, which means really, the only other room we would like heat in is the bedroom, about an hour before we go to bed and about an hour before we wake up. Everything else seems wasteful, not to mention the noise of the forced air fans going on and off all the time.
I’m experimenting here, not only with our heating bill, but with a little bit of discomfort.
Do you ever watch shows about pioneers and marvel, like I do, at how cold people must have been all the time before central heating? The more I learn about garment-making of all kinds, the more I realize how much the clothes of yesteryear were really artfully constructed ways of keeping the body warm in draughty and damp conditions. Those layers of garments that looked (and often were) uncomfortable, served a crucial purpose – because even a middle class home with servants could only get things so warm in coal and wood burning fireplaces. For the poor, it would have been much worse, as fuel cost money, and working homes were full of cracks and leaks of air. While many worsted-weight knitted sweaters feel like “too much” in our home environments, they would have been just the thing to keep the cold at bay while having one’s supper or doing light chores around the house.
We forget, all these decades into properly insulated and heated homes, that life has not always been like this – and in fact, it was really only been this way in the wealth of the last forty or fifty years. These days, we expect to hang out in the middle of winter while wearing only a the thinnest of t-shirts and a pair of jeans – no matter how cold it gets outside.
In meditation practice, we are often sitting with a lot of discomfort. Last week I did a six-day sesshin (zen meditation retreat) during which I went through all manner of physical and psychic malady – nothing extreme – but I will admit to coming out of the week stiff and sore all over from the act of sitting on my knees (supported by a bench) and sitting cross legged hour upon hour upon hour.
What’s amazing though, at least I always find this, is that after a couple of days of really struggling to sit through the aches and brain weasals – it always, always, gets somewhat easier. For everyone this is different, of course, but there is a point on retreats in which you can tell that the majority of the room is well and truly settled. Somewhere around day three things get very quiet and the fidgets and body shifts of the days before melt away.
For me, this practice of sitting through discomfort until it shifts and morphs into something else, has been a source of insight – as I’m sure it is for many people with regular meditation practice – for it is in these moments that we realize the ease of just letting go. That is, rather than holding onto the mind state that stakes out our misery, we find ourselves giving way to the authentic practice of “just sitting” and allowing states to rise and subside within us. It’s definitely perseverance to get to this state, but once there, we start to see the potential the practice offers us both on and off the cushion.
In a typical life, we strive for comfort at all costs. We do not walk to the store, we drive. We do not put on a sweater, we turn up the furnace. We do not cook from scratch but purchase packaged ingredients (I have to admit that the latest spin on this – the delivered to your door cooking packages with recipes – does my head in – is it really that hard to shop and cook for oneself?). This is an honest species drive, and without it we would surely have perished in the savannah never having discovered the utility of fire – so I’m not discounting all the needs we express in self-care or managing our homes, etc.
On the other hand, the loss of discomfort and the practice of working through it, robs us of the opportunity to practice equanimity in every day life. We become short-tempered over the things that really do not matter – the wait in traffic, the mixed up order in a restaurant – because we believe that in this day and age we should not have to wait, or experience even a moment where we lack the ease of the modern expectation. Even worse, we believe that while we suffer some small indignity, everyone around us is sailing by and getting what they want. The richer we get, the more comfortable, the less tolerant of any failing in the system in which we live.
I know this because I live a very wealthy life, one which has built up incrementally over the years, and I have recently seen in myself certain kinds of expectations about how the world should work.
The hole in that thinking of course is that I have become insulated – both literally and figuratively. I can have a warm home, all the food that I want, and have the white-skin privilege that insulates me from the racism and class-oppression that exists for the majority of people around me. I forget (until I am reminded) that the Canada I laud for being fair and democratic, is not the Canada that many people I know live in. And I don’t want to give up that bubble – at all – because who does? Who wants to be reminded that they are not free, they are not wealthy, they are not living in a fair society – until everyone around them is also?
I am well aware that one cannot shed privilege and it is a conceit to dress in rags and play poor in order to make a point. But I am also aware that by giving up small things that I do not need, I can turn that personal waste into wealth for others. And that each time I do one of those things I am brought back into a shared reality, out of my comfort. I can be a little bit cold, I can wait to purchase a thing, I can use a little bit less – and turn some of that extra back over.
Not only that, but every time I work with my tiny pains (and they are tiny, for I am very rich) – I make the large ones easier to bear when they do arise. That’s the theory anyway – so I’m working with this one right now, holding out on the furnace repair so that sometimes I have to be cold, haul wood, and wait for gratification in search of a better life.