In late winter the sugar ants arrive, uninvited. We first notice one or maybe two walking across our counter top, scouts checking, we are not sure just what they are checking. Then, a few days later there are a few more boldly walking on spoons and cups waiting to be washed. A dollop of jam left on a knife is soon covered with ants. And when at night we are too tired to clean-up the kitchen, the morning reveals lines of marching ants…going back and forth with their booty.
The arrival of the ants is very much like the arrival of desire in our mind. We notice a small desire…wanting more sunshine, fewer clouds, warmer weather. These are scouts that lead to more and more desire…moving to a warmer climate, which means a new house (renting or buying) and then selling or renting the one we have and finding a moving company and giving away furniture or selling it. On and on it goes. Our desires swarm around things, forms, feelings, perceptions, impulses, memories, experiences, fears. This is how we think…wanting and not wanting. Our desires just like the ants keep coming. And soon we are miserable.
Over the past few years we’ve tried many strategies with the ants. Most of them involved killing lots and lots of ants. The ant problem eventually gets solved with great sorrow and regret at killing so many ants, which really aren’t causing any harm.
This year, thinking about the arrival of ants and the arrival of desire in the mind we are working with a practice of simplicity and persistence. With the ants, it is obvious: put all food away, leave nothing on the counters. Rinse off all silverware, dishes, cups, glasses. Wipe the counters down every time food is prepared. Do this all day, every day. The ants can scout around but they won’t find anything to message home about.
Simplicity and persistence can also work with desire. We can physically begin to simplify our life, so example: put away everything we take out. If what we take out doesn’t have a “home” clean out drawers and closets until there is a place to simply put away what we take out. Do this all day every day.
With mental desires, a key is to simply catch it when it comes up…see it scouting around for other desires to latch onto. To begin with maybe we won’t see the scout desires, we will only notice desires when they become swarms…entangled thoughts. Persistent practice can help here…when you notice a desire filled thought, just say “STOP” and move the mind away from the swarm. It takes persistence to pay attention to what our mind is up to. In fact, if we want to have few desires we must pay attention all the time…minute by minute, hour by hour.
Memorize. Repeat. Practice.
Author: Lao di Zhi Shakya
Zen Contemplative Priest of the Order of Hsu Yun
Image credits: Fly, 2020
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