Have you ever tried to simultaneously cook six pots on a stovetop in anticipation of a large holiday banquet? The challenge is to catch each one before it boils over. You find yourself moving your attention from one pot, to the other, to the next, until you are back stirring the first one. It’s not a very efficient way to cook!
More than 30 years ago, I accepted a position at a church that reminded me of that image. The past four ministers had been driven out during a span of 11 months. I had arrived there on the third anniversary of its founding. I guess I just had never lived on a beach and wanted to try it out.
And, being young, I felt invincible.
Not so fast.
Soon after I had arrived, I was presented with several problems that I had never heard of before—in or out of ministerial school—or since. I was “stirring all of the pots” and saw the beach across the road from my lodgings as the perfect place to figure out each and every one.
My intellect was on overdrive as I furiously scribbled down my tangled thoughts about these many problems. Then three dogs showed up and started kicking sand onto my carefully staged beach towel/workspace. When I tried to shoo them away, the leader grabbed my reef shoe and took off with it down the beach.
The second dog took it from him and passed it along to the third. They were playing a game of doggie keep-away! Just as I caught up with one, the next one would grab it and run away and splash out into the water, or race down the beach, all the while shooting me looks of superiority and playfulness. I was offended and outraged. Being a powerful, important human, I had things to do, pots to stir, and problems to solve!
After a while, I began to laugh at my predicament and even enjoy it. Here was a problem I wasn’t equipped to solve! The more we played, the more we all got into it!
I began to feel like I was one of them. The thought occurred to me, What if I really let go and became a dog? And so I looked up into the skies, threw back my head, and started howling!
All three dogs stopped dead in their tracks and stared. They didn’t know what to do! One by one, they all started howling in harmony with me. It felt liberating in light of all of my current troubles. My reef shoe lay dropped and forgotten in the sand as we out-howled each other, until I found myself fully absorbed in being a dog, singing my part in a choir of howls!
After a long time passed, I remembered why I had gone to the beach. The sun was getting low in the sky. It wasn’t that I was going to be late for anything, but fun’s fun and work’s work, and I simply must be getting back to my problem-solving and pot-stirring!
I picked up my shoe and walked back to the beach towel, ignoring the playful nips and yaps of my three new friends. When I sat down and pulled out my pen and paper, one of them grabbed the other shoe and, this time, swam out to the deepest water. I picked up the first one for safekeeping and took out after him. I will always remember the look of disappointment that dog gave me when I finally got my shoe back. It was as if he was saying with utter disgust, “You don’t even have enough good sense to be a dog!”
I wish I could say I grasped the lesson that had just been handed to me by the universe, but I didn’t. I unsuccessfully tried to solve each and every one of those problems for months, using my intellect. They got worse, for all my effort. It took much too long for me to finally reflect back on that day at the beach and see the light.
The hidden lesson was this: The way to deal with six pots boiling over on a stovetop is not to stir each one in turn. The answer is to turn down the heat!
That was what playing with the dogs was about. That is what they were teaching me—to open up to that playful, intuitive part of myself that could rise above the problem into the space of the solution.
Who sent those four-legged angels to me? Their arrival surely was no accident, even if it took me forever to receive the gift that they had brought me.
And so I began to focus on times of meditation, quieting my mind through nature and exercise, going on spiritual retreats, being an adventurer in my own life. These were effective ways of turning down the heat. I learned to do this the hard way, but eventually, I made sure I spent sufficient time nurturing the part of me that dwells above the pot-stirring intellect and thinks it can figure it all out. Things worked out a lot better once I did. Many of the pots (problems) were still there, but I wasn’t heating them up as much with my worried mind.
I remember reading that Mother Teresa used to require her volunteers in Calcutta to do two things. One was to meditate and pray for an hour each day. The other was to play games for a second hour.
Turning down the burners will allow us to take care of what is ours to do, with grace and ease and poise. Then we can lift up into the guiding, intuitive mind that really knows the answers.