Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #154 The Joy of Drudgery
About this episode

To get more insights about transforming drudgery into a spiritual practice, tune in for the full episode, which also includes Martha’s guided Silence, Stillness, and Space meditation. And if a retreat with Martha sounds like just the thing to help you return to your life with fresh eyes, read about her Pure.Wild.Self Retreat in Costa Rica at the link below!

The Joy of Drudgery

Martha Beck:

Welcome, welcome, welcome to The Gathering Room. I am just coming from a very busy day and I bet you are too. So let’s do the deep breath. I still want to do our meditation at the end because folks are coming in for a few minutes in the beginning, even though I love our Space, Silence, and Stillness meditation, and I’m doing a little bit of it right now just to come down from being pretty hyper because I’ve been in a very hyper state. In case you haven’t heard, I’ve literally told everyone that I could possibly find, I just spent a week in Costa Rica at a place called the Imiloa Institute, which is a retreat center where Ro and I will be doing a retreat based on—it’s called Pure.Wild.Self—it’s kind of based on our Bewildered podcast a bit. And we met with other people who do retreats there, and Andrea is one of those people and she’s here now.

Maybe more people are here that were there. The point is, I got to live in the jungle of Costa Rica for most of a week, and it was exquisite. Talk about retraining your nervous system. Now, I have told you before that research shows that if you go into a forest, if you’ve been living in the city, and you go into a forest around trees for just three hours, your cancer-killing cells like triple, and they stay elevated for six weeks. And we were designed to live in that all the time. So that nervous system readjustment is so powerful, but it’s a little frightening to realize that that’s the way we’re meant to be living. And that what’s really true here is not just that trees and nature are good for us, but that being away from trees and nature, that’s not good for us. I had a friend once who was an animal psychic and she got her book published by the same publisher that was working with me after going to the office and saying, “Everybody in the publishing firm bring me a picture, a photograph of your pet, and I will tell you everything about the pet.”

And for a whole day, people would go into this office with a picture of their pet and come out just chalk white going, “Oh my God, something…The world is not what I thought it was.” Because she was reading these pets very, very accurately. Someone brought a picture of a turtle and she was like, “Oh, he fell off a balcony and hurt his–he broke his shell. Oh, that’s awful.” And they were like, “That happened five years ago.” She said, “Well, he remembers it.” So she wasn’t just saying, “Oh, you have an animal. It loves you.” She was getting very specific about what had happened. Anyway, she says she went to a zoo once. She tries to avoid zoos because she hates seeing animals in captivity, but she went the zoo, and there was a jaguar behind bars in this enclosure, and she looked at it and she felt this connection.

And so with that connection, she thought to the jaguar, “I’m so sorry you’re not in your natural environment.” And the jaguar said, “I’m so sorry you’re not in yours.” The jaguar was very sympathetic to her plight, and we really are not in our natural environment. So we came home and jumped into the usual ways of living and working and washing the dishes and getting things like, I’m still not completely unpacked, so I don’t like the disorganization, but keeping things organized in life, it’s just we fight this endless battle against drudgery, against entropy. Everything’s falling apart around us all the time, and we have to keep cleaning it up and cleaning it up. I kept thinking, I became obsessed in Costa Rica with having to drink water so much because we were doing all these activities like bathing in the river under a waterfall and stuff, and you don’t realize that you’re actually using a lot of water and you need to stay hydrated.

So I kept thinking, I’m either drinking water or having to go pee. We have to have special stations where I take in water, then I have to go offload water. And babies just make no sense. You’re just constantly stuffing things in one end of them and then wiping it off the other end. Why don’t we just keep it? Why don’t I just drink a gallon of water and keep it? Why does it have to keep flowing through me with all these root, all the things I have to do to manage it? And the reason, I think, is that life, giving life to a material object is an extraordinarily complex and strange thing. If there’s a miracle in our lives, it’s that we can somehow animate matter with consciousness. And it’s, you have to do a lot of upkeep to sustain ordinary life. And so much of our life is consumed by things we do a lot.

And this is why we get the myth of Sisyphus, the guy who is cursed by the gods to roll a big rock, a big boulder, up a hill all day every day, and then the gods would roll it back down the hill, and the next day he’d have to push it up again. And that’s kind of the archetype of just every day, get up, make the bed, deal with the three-year-old, feed the 3-year-old, pick up the food that the 3-year-old has thrown on the floor, feed the dog, send the dog out because he’s eaten half of the kid’s breakfast and now is having stomach trouble. Wipe up the problems that happened with the dog and the child and the food and the stomach trouble. And it just goes on and on, the drudgery of it. So Ro said to me, “It was so wonderful being in the jungle!” And in this luxury place where everything, you wake up in the morning and they’ve already delivered the coffee or tea you ordered the night before.

It’s just waiting in a little thermos by the door and there are birds singing in the jungle. She was like, “How do I readjust to the drudgery?” And so I started thinking about it and realized that in traditions where they have the concept of awakening, like Asian cultures that believe in enlightenment or even mystical Christian traditions or Kabbalah or the, what was Rumi? He was a Sufi. Yeah. So there are these metaphysical transformations that are considered possible in all these spiritual traditions. And one of the things they say in Zen is, you probably have heard this: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” We’ve talked about this before, and the whole point is your life doesn’t get any different. You still have to eat, drink, and deal with the consequences after you’re enlightened. Then why bother with enlightenment? And the reason is that it’s not what you’re doing, it’s how you’re doing it.

It’s not how much you’re doing. It’s the quality of presence that is in your body, in your mind, in your heart, while every task is carried out. So what they suggest, there’s a story I got from a guy who went to be a Zen monk in Japan before it was a common thing, and he had all kinds of misadventures. They had to meditate in this cold hall, and one day he thought he was just too cold, so he brought in a little brazier and tucked it under his robe, and then it got extremely hot and started to burn his legs and he had to flee in shame and everything. So it’s a good book. I totally forget what it’s called. But one day he’s washing tomatoes with another monk, and the monk said, “Well, no wonder you’re not happy.” And he said, “What do you mean?”

And he said, “You’re peeling one tomato, but you’re looking at the next tomato. You can’t be happy that way.” And he said, “What?!” The guy said, “No, the tomato you’re peeling is the universe. It’s the only time in the history of mankind that this tomato has been touched and peeled. The inside of this tomato has been touched by another living creature. This encounter with the tomato is a miracle. This has the substances that become your eyesight and your digestion and your energy and your joy. If you can’t love this tomato, you’re not alive. And if you’re looking at the other tomatoes, you’re not loving this one.” So you chop wood, carry water, which are the two things you do most in a place that doesn’t have running water and electricity. We don’t have to do them, which is wonderful, but whatever you have to do that you do as a drudge. With drudgery, the idea is not to avoid it and get away from it, but to literally turn and drop deeper into the drudgery to find the essence of what’s in there that is electrifying, that is awe-inspiring.

And if you really, really think about a tomato while you’re peeling it, and you really explore the sensations associated with it, what happens is that you get into the sensory and present elements of your nervous system. So if you’re thinking about something and planning what to do and calculating how to peel the next tomato, you’re in the left—you’re using a lot of left hemisphere preference. When you start to fall in love with an individual tomato, and I’ve done this, all you have to do if you’re like me, is draw the thing. If you draw it—we used to, when I was at Harvard, we would draw from the figure sometimes and we’d hire models and they’d come in, and I think there was one woman who was in her late fifties, she probably weighed about 200 pounds and she’d had one breast removed, mastectomy, but just one.

And she was scarred, she had a lot of scars on her body. So she would get up and pose in the nude, and I would think, “Oh, poor lady.” And then I would start to draw her and go into this astonishment at how beautiful she was. Oh, I’ll never forget how it would just, it was like the room just came to life around me when I realized how beautiful she was. And the reason was that drawing moves us into the right side of our brains. Try this, y’all: In the airport and different places where we were traveling—I’ve done this before, but I did it a lot on this trip—I would look at a human being just in a line for customs or whatever, and I would just think the words, “You are so beautiful.” And immediately, I just repeated a few times, and some dude with a MAGA hat who’d come from, as David Sedaris says, he looked like he’d just been greasing a pig with a rag and then said, “To hell with this, I’m going to LA!” He’s like, we don’t dress up when we travel anymore. 

And I would look at this person and go, in my mind, “You are so beautiful.” And boom! The beauty would just knock me out. So when Ro said, “I don’t want to go back to drudgery, I want to stay in the jungle because it’s waking me up and making my life feel so different.” And that’s true, going, retreating, I mean, monks go on retreats for a reason because it re-tunes your nervous system and it teaches you how to get far enough away from the daily tasks so that when you come back, you’re slightly different. And you can look at anything and say, “You are so beautiful.” And one of my jobs in our family is that I clean up the kitchen every night after dinner and it’s late in the day. And I usually want, I want to go upstairs and be with my family some more. So I’m kind of, I wash the same plate every day, but if I hold the plate and I look at the water and I look at the brush that I’m holding and I look at the soap and I feel the sensations and I say, “This is so beautiful. This is so beautiful.” Right now, look at the phone, the computer, whatever you’re on, and then the whole room around it or wherever you are, the car, whatever, and just say, “Oh, this is so beautiful. This is so beautiful.

This is so beautiful.” And then just look around until you see that it’s true, and you will, or you’ll hear that it’s true. I just heard voices of loved ones from downstairs. The beauty of that when you’ve been away from them for a few days and to hear those voices—so beautiful. To see your names coming up from New Zealand and Vienna and South America, from everywhere—you are so beautiful. And the thing is that if you do anything without saying that in your mind, it becomes what we call drudgery. And if you say that to anything, no matter how much drudgery is in it, it stops being drudgery. It becomes unlike any moment that ever was before or will ever be again. We have this weird experience of being able to exist in what seems to be a point of time, even though we know that points of time don’t exist. Let’s use it. Let’s get into the drudgery. And really, I challenge you: Wash the dishes tonight. Get soap that you like to smell and feel the texture of it and get the water warm enough and roll up your sleeves so you can really put your hands in the water. Chop wood, carry water. And just notice that every dish is beautiful in a different way. Every piece of wood is beautiful in a different way. Every drop of water that falls is beautiful in a different way. And the whole thing is an ongoing ecstasy for anyone who is completely present. And you do it with a sensory process. Anything that uses the body in the five senses instead of the calculating planning logical hemisphere, which is important, but not all-important. So that’s my little essay on why I’m so glad I went to the jungle and I’m now so glad I’m back. And let’s do our meditation now. I think this is a good time to do it. And then we will go to questions. Okay? So get yourself, uncross your legs, get your arms and legs uncrossed, take a deep breath and sigh out, like maybe purse your lips. So you have to push your diaphragm a little to get a breath out that lowers your heartbeat, puts you in a state of ventral vagal activation. And now we’re going to ask our weird question. Can you imagine the distance between your eyes? Can I imagine the distance between my eyes? Is it possible to imagine the distance between the top of my head and the base of my spine?

Can I imagine the space inside my legs? Can I imagine the stillness holding my arms? Can I imagine the space between me and all the other people who are in this Zoom chat room right now? Can I imagine the silence beneath every sound I’m hearing? Can I imagine the infinite space in which we are all suspended as energy without boundaries? Can I imagine the stillness holding everything we’re doing now? These things will never fail us: stillness, silence, and space. They’re warm, they’re alive, they’re conscious, they’re loving us from the moment we’re born until the moment we die. And who knows what happens after that? Thank you. I can feel everything buzzing in my body. And all we’re doing is sitting here. We’re literally not really doing much of anything to make ourselves happy. We’re just sitting here, imagining space. That’s so simple.

All right, Zenza says, “How can we enjoy something that is just horrible and against our North Star because we need to pay the bills and deal with people who we don’t like to deal with?”

That’s true. But even so, if you start to think of everything happening for you instead of happening to you—there’s a man I know, his name is Paul Hawken, and he wrote this book called Drawdown about how to pull carbon out of the air. And he had a big breakthrough when he realized he was really obsessed with climate change. And then he thought, “But what if climate change is happening for me and not to me?” And he said, “Well, how could that be for me? Well, it’s changing me into a person who wants to know how to change the weather back, the climate back.” All right, so if something horrible is happening to me and it’s happening for me, I’m paying the bills. I don’t like it this way. Okay, I’m finding the part inside myself that is gently saying, this is not your north star. Feel this. Feel what it’s like, and then feel what it’s like to do other things and start to be more and more present with what you’re feeling and move toward things that feel more nourishing. And yes, there’s drudgery. I’m not saying that we’re going to be boom! out of drudgery and into joy all the time, but if we can find the part of us inside that is telling us that we don’t like what we’re doing, we’ll find that it’s always a voice of love, and that it’s always filled with intelligence and joy and life, and that is a gift. It’s like being sick so you can find within you the place that rejoices in being well. You never feel more alive than when you’ve gotten out of something that didn’t feel good. So some people call it contrast. It teaches us how to find joy, and because of that, it’s a very useful gift. Suffering is a very, very trusted advisor, and it’s the one mechanism that will get us to pay attention and move toward our enlightenment. So thank you, drudgery. Thank you, horrible bill, for teaching me to find something different. You actually come to love the thing that is driving you away from it. You really do if you practice this.

Rose Brita said, “Is there a risk that being present with situations no longer serving you will mean you’re less inclined to leave it when the time comes?” No, you drop in and it’s so clear what you don’t want and what you do want. The clarity is what’s beautiful. When you look at someone and go, “Oh, that’s not for me.”

I remember sitting in a faculty meeting and it was horrible beyond description, horrible faculty meetings. I’ve got to tell you, if you’re in academia and you love faculty meetings, God bless you. But it was not my north star. And I remember sitting in a faculty meeting when I was an assistant professor and dropping in because it was so miserable and just so clearly feeling like choirs of angels were saying, “Marty, leave this.” And because I was present, I knew to leave. And because I was present and knowing to leave, I felt this incredible relief in that moment. I even gave up, I hadn’t finished my PhD at the time, so I gave up trying to finish my dissertation. I had three little kids, the whole thing, and I just said to whatever was giving me this beautiful message, “Look, if you want to get a Harvard PhD with this body, you are going to have to do it because I’m out.” And then I relaxed so much, and sure enough, the energy that came through allowed me to finish that piece of work, which later became the first book that I published and started my writing career. So there you go.

Dr. Donna says, “How do you stay present in the peeling of the tomato when culture tells you to get it done quickly? And how do you fend off the anxiety of ‘Are there enough tomatoes?’” Both of these things, culture is talking to me. There are words in my head about this tomato, and there may not be enough tomatoes to reach, to last the rest of eternity. Those are both left-hemisphere conceptions. They are both cognitive, they’re both abstract. They have nothing to do with the actual feeling and taste of the tomato itself. There is no language to describe what something like a piece of fruit—because tomatoes are fruit, did you know?—there is no language. You cannot describe the taste of salt so effectively that somebody actually tastes salt. You have to give them a taste of salt, and then they know for sure and it doesn’t take very long. That’s how right-hemisphere stuff works. You become present, language leaves. There’s a tomato, you have it, and it is so beautiful, and you are so beautiful. And I swear to God, if you get into it enough, the tomato will look back at you and go, “And you are so beautiful.” And yeah, it’s all full of consciousness and you can feel that when you stop, you just walk away from the chatter. We started really processing the idea of chatter. When we do our retreat in the jungle in about a year from now, Ro and I are going to do some exercises around the chatter that comes into our minds and that we hear all the time when we’re with most groups of people. Go into sensation, let the chatter leave. If you get involved enough, try to write your name backwards. Like sign your name and then try to sign it backwards and then backwards and upside down. I promise you that in that struggle, you will leave the chatter behind you and you’ll be very present.

Deborah says, “How is this different from toxic positivity, e.g. when staring at a MAGA hat?” I don’t think it’s toxic positivity ever to look at someone and genuinely find them beautiful, genuinely find them beautiful. Have you seen Van Gogh’s paintings of the gleaners, the peasants in the field picking the little wheat chaff? Or, for some reason I’m thinking about Impressionists, Renoir’s painting—is it Renoir who did the glass of absinthe? They’re people in a bar, they’re drinking, they’re not considered beautiful. These artists looked at them and found beauty in their ruggedness, in their addiction, in their sorrow. That’s not toxic positivity, that’s just perception of beauty.

The way you know it’s toxic is that it feels like a lie. The way you know it’s not toxic is that it feels like the truth, and your whole system aligns and you come into more integrity. When you look at someone and think, “You are so beautiful…” Try it. I could describe salt for the rest of my life; you’d never know what it felt like. Try walking around and just saying, “You are so beautiful” to everything you look at until it actually takes, until you drop your skepticism and allow what is actually looking at you to get through. It’s all so beautiful.

Fatima says, “How do you bring sensory presence into work drudgery involving computers and excel?” Ooh, you know what I like to do? I Google things that I really love: animals, animals being funny, huskies arguing with their owners. But also I can access great art. I can access profound poetry that is very brief. Hilarious and beautiful memes and reels that people put up. And if I balance going back and forth—right now, I’m editing a book, which weirdly enough, when I drop in and I’m really present, it becomes very right hemisphere and very absorbing and very connected with the reader. But if I have to do something like make a spreadsheet, then I have to have a picture of a dog in a hat, and that works. That makes it all beautiful. One dog in a hat makes everything beautiful. Maybe that’s just me.

Danielle says, “Does this work with people you’re having difficulties communicating with, particularly in the work world where it doesn’t feel beautiful?” Yes, it does work, and you will find if you drop in and somebody doesn’t feel beautiful, almost a hundred percent of the time, it’s because you’re afraid.

That keeps you locked in your left hemisphere where you’re imagining all the bad things that can happen. But if you suddenly, like an angel came through the roof and said, “You know what? The time has come for you to go. I’ll be back for you in 10 minutes.” And you were like, “Huh, I guess I’m out of here.” You would look at the people at work and go, “Oh, oh, you poor possum. You are having a really difficult life. Oh, poor thing.” And it’s like watching a dog in a hat that’s not happy, and it puts you in a place where you’re not afraid of the other person. So you can just perceive them as a being that is struggling the same way we all struggle in a world that’s very, very difficult. All this stuff about awakening doesn’t just happen to us. We have to yearn for it, and then we have to really commit to it, commit to it in the way we commit to falling in love, commit to letting ourselves be happy.

Lynn says, “I feel like I’m dying from shingles. I have shingles a lot. How do you feel that this is happening for me? That’s tough.” Yeah, pain is a doozy. I had a very painful night last night for some reason, and I have to say my entire career and the reason I’m sitting here talking to you is 90% because I had so much physical pain, including shingles, for much of my life. Because when you’re suffering the ordinary things like watching the news and eating bon bons, it’s not enough to make you want to be alive when you’re suffering. So you have to look for a deeper meaning. You have to look for things that help you bear the pain. And finding everything beautiful is one of the things that will reduce my pain level. After, and it gets to the point where actually I can start to appreciate the pain itself as something just to marvel at.

It took me a long time to get there. I worked with this one body worker who a lot of people scream a lot when she works on them. And she said, “Oh, you’re someone who has learned to work with pain,” and she tried to hurt me. And I was like, “That’s a sharp sensation, but I wouldn’t call it pain.” So all I can say to you is I totally identify. It’s horrible, horrible, horrible. And you can use it to wake you up. And it’s a hard one, but because it’s a hard one when you get it, it’s really good, I promise.

Okay, finally, PC Longston says, “Can we go back in time and imagine experiences as beautiful? Do you recommend that?” I do that all the time. And you can imagine things that are even more beautiful. So try combining the two. Try remembering a beautiful experience, and then imagine that a unicorn comes or a Pegasus and you can fly on a horse. Add all the inventive capacities of a human brain, the things you remember, the things you imagine. Add things that have never been combined before. This is the beauty and joy of being human in these bodies, which are so freaking difficult and require so much that can become drudgery. Chop wood, carry water. I’m so sorry you have to do that. Chop wood, carry water. Oh my God, the ecstasy. I’m so happy you can do that. I love you all so much. I’ll see you later on The Gathering Room again. Thank you so much for joining me. Bye. Go be in joyful drudgery and we’ll talk again so soon.

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