Once, while on retreat at the Zen Center of Ottawa, I became dismayed by how clearly I could see the layers of patterns, habits, and tendencies that shaped my experience. I expressed my frustration to a teacher. She listened patiently and then told me about the process of renovating the monastery. The property had originally been a convent for nuns, and over many years, layers of walls, floors, and decorations had been added. Renovating involved stripping away much of these additions, emptying the building of the superfluous. She related this tale because it had a lot to do with how I was: full of junk. This junk doesn’t magically disappear once you notice it. Rather, in practice, we can expose these layers, revealing the basic dignity of the structure we’ve been given.
But what about when you’re actually, well, renovating? Last year, my wife and I bought a condo with the knowledge that we’d need to update the kitchen and bathroom. We thought this process would take a couple of months. In August, we moved into the basement unit of my in-laws, a place we not-so-endearingly referred to as the Hovel. We slept on a pull-out sofa, our clothes strewn everywhere, believing we were mere weeks away from living in our new home. On December 21, we moved in, but not before we had both lost our minds.
I offer these five steps to renovating without losing your mind(fulness) in the hopes that others may succeed where we failed.
1. Accept the Impossibility of the Goal
There is a famous Zen koan in which Bodhidharma sits facing a wall. His successor, Huike, who had so far been unable to attain realization, chops off his own arm out of desperation. He presents it to Bodhidharma and says, “My mind is not pacified. Master, pacify my mind.”
Bodhidharma says, “If you bring me that mind, I will pacify it for you.”
Huike says, “When I search my mind, I cannot find it.”
Bodhidharma says, “Then your mind is already pacified.”
Prior to the renovation, I assumed that the process would be simple. A, B, and C would be removed and replaced with X, Y, and Z. You know, kind of like Legos. But very quickly I realized that a renovation is much more art than science, and it’s a pretty messy art at that. Things will not click perfectly into place. Things will go wrong. Like, really wrong. Like, sewage backing up into the building wrong.
In your mind you may long for the house that you initially envisioned; the pristine Lego structure. But when you search for that house, you will not find it. It never existed. It was but a figment of your imagination. Once you accept this, you will be able to work with the structure you have. There, your mind is pacified.
I also mention this because renovations involve a lot of woodcutting, and losing an arm does nothing to advance you down the spiritual path. So be careful. To summarize: save the arm, lose the mind.
2. Recognize that Impermanence Is Relative
All things are temporary. This recognition is one of the cornerstones of Buddhism. There is no self and nothing lasts forever.
However, there are some places where time seems to stand still, and a Hovel is one of those places. You will never escape the basement of your in-laws … until you do.
In the meantime, unpack! My mother recently told me that in Jewish lore, one travels as if everywhere one goes is one’s new home, because during the diaspora, that was often the case. I wish she’d told me that in August, when we initially threw our clothes everywhere. All things are temporary. But impermanence is relative. Take care of your surroundings.
3. This Too Shall Not Pass
Recently, my wife and I were out to dinner with friends, and they asked us to estimate, percentage-wise, how much effort I was putting into the renovation. Amazingly, we both came up with the same number independently of one another: 8 percent! It was pointed out to me that in my wedding vows, I said, “Should we ever undertake an event of this magnitude again, I vow to be at least three times as helpful.”
The truth is, the only reason we were able to move in on December 21, 2017, and not December 21, 2018, is that my wife got shit done. Should we ever renew our vows or re-renovate our home, I vow not to say things like, “This too shall pass.” In the meantime, it’s really helping me practice gratitude. For the record, we both agree that since that dinner with our friends, I have upped my contribution to somewhere between 12 and 14 percent. Most of that bump is due to my handling of the aforementioned sewage backing up into the building situation, but still there’s no “I” in “renovate” (or, some might say, in Buddhism). Be active, not passive.
4. Remember the Big Picture. Attend to the Little Picture.
I never envisioned losing sleep over whether we should move the bathroom wall out four inches or six inches. Of course, we were in a fortunate position to even be grappling with a bathroom wall conundrum, and all the frustration it caused was but a superficial blip on the suffering radar. As with any large endeavor, one can tend to focus on it so much that one ends up with a distorted view.
Still, the bathroom wall conundrum engendered a Rube Goldberg-like chain of other decisions, and attending to this chain carefully was vital for the success of the renovation. The big picture is important, but it may not be the best thing to share with your wife when she has shed blood, sweat, and tears pouring over specifics. It is best to give worldwide suffering a wide berth from renovation details. It is best to engage meaningfully with your immediate reality, while still recognizing the context in which it arises.
On a similar note, in an effort to help us feel better, people often regaled us with their own renovation horror stories. It totally worked! As you go through the renovation process, solicit these stories as much as possible, because rest assured, it could always be worse.
5. The Project Is Never Complete
One of the roles at a Zen monastery is that of the shissui, the person in charge of maintenance. I have noticed, over 15 years of visiting the Zen Center of Ottawa, that the work is never done. There is the day-to-day maintenance, the long-term upkeep of the facilities, and constant projects to improve the grounds and update the space. I think a reasonable analogy can be made with practice. When one exposes the layers of pattern, habit, and tendency, one doesn’t sit back and say, “There, I’m done.” Practice is a moment-to-moment project. It is never done.
Kind of like our renovation.
I mean this metaphorically: now that we own a home, we will always need to pay attention to maintenance and upkeep. Your physical space, after all, is a manifestation of your mental space, and we want this space to be clear and open.
I also mean this literally: our renovation is not done. We’ve moved in, but there’s still no toe kick for the dishwasher, no mirror in the guest bathroom, and the trim and fixtures for the bathtub have not arrived.
A renovation is a day-to-day project. It is never done. Remember this lesson and it will help ease the frustration you feel months later when you live among a sea of boxes and construction materials. But the subway tile looks phenomenal, and sooner or later, we’ll be able to take a bath.
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