As I was working to finish this book, we experienced a series of plumbing leaks in our house. The first appeared in the ceiling of a storage room. We considered ourselves genuinely lucky to have found it, because this was a room that we might have gone months without entering. A plumber arrived within a few hours, cut the drywall, and fixed the leak. A plasterer came the next day, repaired the ceiling, and painted it. This sort of thing happens eventually in every home, I told myself, and my prevailing feeling was of gratitude. Civilization is a wonderful thing.
Then a similar leak appeared in an adjacent room a few days later. Contact information for both the plumber and the plasterer was at my fingertips. Now I felt only annoyance and foreboding.
A month later, the horror movie began in earnest: a pipe burst, flooding six hundred square feet of ceiling. This time the repair took weeks and created an immense amount of dust; two cleaning crews were required to deal with the aftermath — vacuuming hundreds of books, drying, and shampooing the carpet, and so forth. Throughout all this we were forced to live without heat, for otherwise the dust from the repair would have been sucked into the vents, and we would have been breathing it in every room of the house. Eventually, however, the problem was fixed. We would have no more leaks.
And then, last night, scarcely one month after the previous repair, we heard the familiar sound of water falling onto carpet. The moment I heard the first drops, I was transformed into a hapless, uncomprehending, enraged man racing down a staircase, I’m sure I would have comported myself with greater dignity had I come upon the scene of a murder. A glance at the ballooning ceiling told me everything I needed to know about the weeks ahead: our home would be a construction site once again.
Of course, a house is a physical object beholden to the laws of nature — and it won’t fix itself. From the moment my wife and I grabbed buckets and salad bowls to catch the falling water, we were responding to the ineluctable tug of physical reality. But my suffering was entirely the product of my thoughts. Whatever the need of the moment, I had a choice: I could do what was required calmly, patiently, and attentively, or do it in a state of panic. Every moment of the day — indeed, every moment throughout one’s life — offers an opportunity to be relaxed and responsive or to suffer unnecessarily.
We can address mental suffering of this kind on at least two levels. We can use thoughts themselves as an antitdote, or we can stand free of thought altogether. The first technique requires no experience with meditation, and it can work wonders if one develops the appropriate habits of mind. Many people do it quire naturally: it’s called “looking on the bright side.”
For instance, as I was beginning to rage like King Lear in the storm, my wife suggested that we should be thankful that it was fresh water pouring through our ceiling and not sewage. I found the thought immediately arresting: I could feel in my bones how much better it was to be mopping up water at that moment than to be ankle deep in the alternative. What a relief! I often use thoughts of this kind as levers to pry my mind loose from whatever rut it has found on the landscape of unnecessary suffering. If I had been watching sewage spill through our ceiling, how much would I have paid merely to transform it into fresh water? A lot.