Joe Jencks


After Enlightenment, Laundry

After Enlightenment Laundry
After Enlightenment, Laundry

As I sit on a plane and cross the stroke of Midnight somewhere over Ohio, I reflect on what it means to be a year older. I reflect on some of what I have learned. Lately I have been thinking a lot about the idea of what it means to have a “practice.”

I used to beat myself up a little because I thought I did not have a regular spiritual practice. And then I realized that since I was a child, music has been my practice.

The effort to perfect a musical performance is not one act. It is not one 4:00 minute experience. It is 240 seconds. It is 240 moments in which one could make a mistake. It is 240 opportunities to execute a complex activity. But it is still more than that. It is a complex, multi-layered process. It is the right hand and the left hand, the singing, and the posture, the movement of the body, the internal and external rhythms. It is the thoughts that constantly flood the mind and try to distract us from riding the razors edge… It is staying alert.

When I deconstruct and add up all of the different activities that happen simultaneously in performance, I realize that there are more than Two Thousand discrete actions happening in 4 minutes of solo performance. That is a lot of opportunity for unintended actions. That is a lot of opportunity for something to go differently than was planned.

Professional baseball players who hit the ball 33% of the time are considered top-flight athletes, and nearly guaranteed a place in the hall of fame. So getting 85% or 90% of a 4-minute piece of music correct? That’s pushing the boundaries of what is possible. And that last 10% - that is where the practice lays, in every sense of the word. Because eventually it requires removing conscious thought from the process. It involves trusting each part of your body to remember its assigned task and to carry it out simultaneously, while you conduct the orchestra, as it were.

And a mistake? Inevitable. So rather than fretting about it, we have to learn to say, “Oops!” And then we jump right back in!

What if the rest of our lives are like that too? What if rather than fixating on mistakes or unintended outcomes, we could release the shame and self-reproach and jump back on the bronco in 3 seconds? What if we could just go “Ooops!” and catch back up with the process at hand?

What if we could learn to not judge others, or ourselves for mistakes? How would that make it easier for us to engage in the practice of being present in this moment?

Noted sociologist Brene Brown says that the current generation of North Americans are the most obese, most addicted, and most in debt, of any generation in our history. She asserts that shame is one of the biggest obstacles to overcome as we seek to change on a personal or societal level.

I think that’s right. I cannot make music if I am judging myself harshly for each moment. I can’t get lost in the serenity and joy of the music, if I am stuck in the shame of imperfection. My job is to climb back on the train of time, every time I fall off. It keeps moving, and I can’t really catch up. But I can try to move with the passing of time, in the present moment.

My practice now, is one of learning how to be present for more of those 240 seconds. On a really good night I can execute at a level of 90 to 95%. That balances the rare 99% performance with the occasional 60%.

But music is not about minutes or hours of perfection. It is only about single moments, and the continued practice of trying to string together hundreds and thousands of intended moments into a cohesive piece of art.

If the mind is further preoccupied with self-recrimination and shame for having made a mistake – we loose more than three or four seconds to the mistake. We can loose whole minutes, indeed entire evenings to the, “feeling bad because I made a mistake” voices. Those voices keep us from being present in this moment. And this moment is the only one there is. I can’t change the last moment. And all I can do is ruin the next 10 or 100 by fretting about it.

So I do my best to just hop on the bucking bronco and hang on. It’s not a matter of if I will fall off, only a question of when. If I can hang on to that solo 10 more seconds tonight than I did last night – WOW. Killer. Victory.  If I can make it through an entire minute without a single mistake – vocally or instrumentally – Holy cow!!!

Whatever your practice in life, be it at work or at home, with other people or on your own, in body, spirit, mind or deed, my wish for you is that you can let it be a practice. Let each moment be an opportunity to stay present, lovingly, through mistakes and choices, and new choices. If we can choose how to move through a moment, with peaceful acceptance rather than resentment, maybe that is enlightenment.  When we quit wasting our mental and emotional energy on resenting the mundane, imagine how much more capacity we develop for staying calm and centered and present in the face of more complex conflicts?

There is a Buddhist phrase that has been my companion for some time:
Before enlightenment, laundry. After enlightenment, laundry.

I chew on this regularly, sometimes even when I am doing laundry! Learning to be present with the laundry transforms a chore into a practice. It is a practice that can help us develop patience. Cooking, cleaning, others chores can be transformed into a practice.

Sometimes when the road has been a little too chaotic – I look forward to holing up somewhere and immersing myself in the “mundanity” of this simple grounding chore. I find that conscientiously doing my laundry seems to help me put a few more nickels in the spiritual/emotional piggy bank. Then when I find myself faced with greater struggles than laundry, when I find I am in conflict with others, (which is of course inevitable) I do my best to make a withdrawal from that inner “serenity” bank.

My point is that as I settle into being in my early 40s, I am finally learning that it is possible to tap into the mental process of folding the laundry, and just solve problems without getting stuck in the shame, ours or other people’s. And each new task or problem becomes a process of folding more mental laundry, chopping more wood, carrying more water. And life without the burden of shame is just a series of problems to solve and people to love.

And following this idea of practice, we may suddenly find that we are doing the same things we did before, but we’re doing them a little differently. And while we still make mistakes, we just keep running after the song, moment by moment, measure by measure, minute by minute. That is the practice.

-Joe Jencks
February 1st.