Shit Sandwiches (Not a recipe) by Polly McGee
In her excellent book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert recounts reading a blog by writer Mark Manson, he of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck who said that the secret to finding your purpose in life was to answer the one big question: ‘What is your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?’ It’s a crude analogy for what is an often unspoken truth—every pursuit in life comes with some unpalatable side effects, no matter how much Passion and Purpose sauce you’ve ladled on.
Zen Buddhism gives us another version of this with: ‘Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.’ That saying can be interpreted in a number of ways with regard to the cyclical nature of life and death and the continual process of learning. To get happy and holistic, it simply means that we need to be in an inner state of equanimity and devotion, 24/7 style. When all actions and activities are being done with the intention of love and service to others without seeking personal acknowledgement or reward, it doesn’t matter what you are doing. It all has the same intrinsic feeling of love—even the shit-sandwich-flavoured bits. Mmmm, delicious shit sandwiches.
Not seeking personal benefits as your main priority doesn’t mean there won’t be benefits. It just won’t be a reward that comes like a massive sugar rush to your ego, elevating you with uncontrollable endorphins only to drop you like a stone in the comedown and leave you tired, hungry and craving for more. The reward when you embrace life in service and as a practice of mental discipline isn’t external, or given to you. The reward is the practice. At first it will be an uncomfortable practice, as our mindset is geared towards work being personal, business being personal. We are the doers, doing that thing that brings us money to conduct our transactional lives based on consumption, inputs and outputs. It’s what brings us fame or personal recognition for our singular, spectacular endeavours. It is hard to imagine making the effort required to achieve anything if some personal, tangible reward isn’t the carrot we are pursuing.
It is also hard to give up the drama.
We may think we aspire to being free of suffering, achieving liberation from our ordinary human unhappiness, released from the yoke of neurosis. But are we really? Suffering in many cases writes the narrative of our lives and provides a comfortable refuge from which to disengage our willpower muscles or our self-discipline. Of course that bad day at work needs chocolate for comfort. Reminding yourself it is merely the human condition and getting on with life isn’t nearly so sweet. It allows us to continue feeding the hungry ghosts that are our attachments. While it might seem counterintuitive, we are often a little bit, or a lot in love with misery.
If you’re thinking ‘that’s crazy talk’ then ask yourself why aren’t you already liberated from suffering, happy and free with a spacious mind? The formula has been publically available for centuries. The answer is: it is hard, requires discipline and dedication, and is not a quick fix. A cocktail is a quick fix; a block of chocolate is a quick fix, turning off the alarm and rolling over instead of going to the gym is a quick fix; and all come with a little gratification buzz, which nicely distracts us for a moment. This diet made up of tiny bites and sips of suffering is what is making us collectively sick and tired. It’s time for us to chow down on the high fibre daily goodness of a practice that will ultimately make everyone feel better, even if it is a little unpalatable at first.
We all have the capacity to be able to concentrate on a single matter at hand when we are engrossed in doing something we love. That is the grit and resilience spoken about in growth mindset. The challenge is preparing your mind to release its love affair with the spectacular allure of sense gratifications and the multitasking smorgasbord of busy-ness. To do this, we simply need to commit to a practice of managing our minds. Simple statement, harder to master. We need to learn to still down. To sit, to turn in, to observe our action and patterns lovingly, but with a firm discipline of releasing what is not serving us so we can serve others and in doing so ourselves.