Uninvited and unpleasant circumstances arrive in our life with frightening regularity. We can try to push away our experience, but all too often, our aversion makes it worse. And when we carry around this “dung”, it weighs us down (and, figuratively, makes us smell). If instead, we use it as fertilizer to cultivate a deeper wisdom and understanding, we grow and evolve.
My arrival to the practice of meditation followed this path. All at once, I lost my father and my business. My wife was struggling with a health issue, school wasn’t going so well for either of the kids and I was having trouble sleeping. My response was to try to fix everything. To grab the reigns of control so tightly that not one more thing could go wrong. My teacher likes to say, “What you resist persists.” And it did. Any effort to solve these problems just created more problems. It wasn’t until I let go a bit, felt the discomfort, and watched my experience play out that life came back in to balance.
Ajahm Brahm, author of Who Ordered This Truckload Of Dung? was trained in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahm Chah (also Jack Kornfield’s teacher). His unique brand of humor makes meditation accessible and relatable. Below, he shares the simile of the dung: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fx2dnLxO2nM
His approach is very forgiving. He reminds that there are three things to know about the piles of dung that surround us, be they big or small:
1) You did not ask for this dung.
2) You can’t send it back to where it came from.
3) It really stinks (to the point of nearly being unbearable).
We can either respond to the dung delivery by filling our pockets with it, our bags, our belongings and so on, carrying it with us wherever we go. This is unlikely to make us many friends. The alternative is to see the dung and get to work. We bring it around back to the garden and gently turn it into the soil of our experience. With patience and time, the pile becomes smaller and our garden grows stronger. When we see our challenges as fertilizer, we can use them to cultivate an abundant garden of flowers, fruits, vegetables and love.
This isn’t easy, but we can practice! We meditate and notice what is arising, the thoughts, feelings and sensations that distract us from the object of our attention, be it the breath, the body or sounds. “Working the dung” is aspirational. There is no way our pile will disappear. But when we catch ourselves over and over again, we are literally training our brain to hold our experience more loosely.
Just this week, one of my son’s teachers introduced me to the Aran Islands, just off the coast of Ireland. These islands became the home for displaced Catholics hundreds of years ago. They arrived to a giant pile of rocks:
With patience, they built the rocks into walls. They brought sand to the terraces they’d carved out. And finally they brought nutrient-rich manure and seaweed to mix in to the new soil. Ultimately, they created one of the most fertile agricultural landscapes in Ireland. The secret ingredient was the dung. These are the ingredients of our lives. What will we do with them?