I have just returned from working in the kitchen during a course at the Northwest Vipassana Center. During one of the breaks I had a fascinating conversation with one of the center managers, who it turns out experiences service very differently from me. She asked that I record my thoughts, and this is what I came up with.
Serving is no fun – for me, at least. Serving a course is about stress, anxiety and fatigue, with a few happy moments when I wish the meditators well as I pass them by. There’s no joy in doing the work, as there is for some, and no joyful release at the end; only relief that it’s over. It’s pretty much like sitting a course, with the difference that I’m just banging my head against a wooden wall, not a brick one.
So why do I do it?
I do it because I think it’s good for me. Working in the kitchen amplifies my weaknesses, and makes it easier to see when and where I’m being unskillful. I come face-to-face with my frailties and failings, and hopefully end the course with another sliver of wisdom.
I do it because serving is a middle ground between sitting practice and living in the real world. Like developing any skill - think about playing a musical instrument - meditation requires hours of solitary practice every day, over decades. However, that practice is only the means to an end, which is to live better with, and for, others. Serving on a course helps me try out the skills I’m learning in a realistically stressful but safe environment. Things can’t spin too far out of control; I’m back on the cushion every few hours, with an opportunity to reboot and start again. And I’m surrounded by people of good will, with direct access to teachers if I need it.
And I do it to repay, in small part, the debt I owe to all those people whose service have made it possible for me to learn this technique, and sit courses. I was able to sit because someone else was in the kitchen; now it’s my turn.