The Hands-on School

by Leonard Ross                                                                                                   en español

We stood before a wall:  our job was to make a passageway through it so that the big people and the little people in the kindergarten could amble from room to room in a free way.  We had to begin breaking the wall very gingerly in order to create the opening.  Where might the electrical wires and water pipes be in the walls of that old house?  We had no written record, no architectural plans, and no one to consult regarding the structure of the wall.  Our cold chisel punched in the first tentative hole and, sure enough, struck the edge of something not readily comprehensible.  What could it be?  It wasn’t a pipe.  It wasn’t the casing for electrical wiring.  It wasn’t a beam.  Little by little we chipped away, till finally—rather gloriously in fact—it stood revealed.  We couldn’t immediately realize what we were seeing; a bit stunned by our serendipity, it took us some long, struggling, confused moments to recognize what we had in front of our eyes.  Realization dawned:  it was a beautiful old wooden sliding door, walled in and left to oblivion by some foresightful benefactor.  Our wall had in reality been a door, awaiting someone to see it from a different point of view, awaiting our knock to open it up once again.

So there it stands today, a symbol and a teaching in wood and plaster and in what somehow stays on of our manual and mental effort.  In how many walls around us do doors stand hidden?  How often do we recognize these doors, these teachings?  Do we regularly and readily receive and acknowledge the teachings life offers us?  Potentially the teaching is in everything, always; it is forever the same and it is forever vital, fresh and new, as is life itself, as is the world itself.  Yet recognition becomes the key: we but rarely recognize life’s messages to us, and not recognizing them, we have difficulty receiving them.  Even more:  we do not recognize that we don’t recognize, do not grasp that we haven’t grasped, but rather fall time and again into dully repeating our experiences.   We do not easily pass through the doors that have opened up for us, do not easily walk the paths of wonder that have welcomed us. 

In terms of the everyday, workaday part of our living that is our manual labor, can we make ourselves more aware of points of teaching, and then see how they are expressed in our work experience?  There is where we come to grips with our ideals and grapple with them, palm and knuckle, bone, muscle and sinew.  With regard to their livability, cannot these points often be classified as virtues, in the sense of being potent sources of strength?  We can sensitize ourselves for perceiving these points of teaching and strength in working with our hands and bodies, through and with the physical nature of our lives, and become spiritually stronger thereby.  Which teaching concepts take on life for us, which talk to us through our hands? 

Take “simplicity,” for example.  Have you noticed that the things you and your hands know how to do are, when all is said and done, really made up of a series of very simple individual acts? Even the complicated ones, the ones that at first scared the heck out of you and boggled your mind till you finally got them down pat (and which still make other people today stand agape at your seemingly “inborn” skill)—aren’t they nonetheless, when broken down into their isolated parts, wholly straightforward and un-mysterious for you now?  Think about when you put together that fancy Thanksgiving dinner, or made that 4-tiered wedding cake from scratch up through to the crowning decorative touch, or designed and wove that handsomely colorful tapestry.  In hindsight, don’t you mostly remember things like peeling potatoes and sifting flour and carefully beating in the yarn? 

Indeed, the fabric of memory itself is not solely intellectual, but rather largely tactile.  The “how to” of kneading bread or planting seedlings or tying knots is a knowing in our fingers; it is a knowing in that large part of the brain dedicated to our so marvelously subtle, so wonderfully sensitive “prehensile forepaws.” The finished remembrance of the rock garden we toiled to put together includes its making, includes choosing the rough stones and the smooth stones, and rolling the heavy, textured boulders out of their holes uphill, and arranging and handling and adjusting it all until it was at last put “gut feel right.”

Notwithstanding, do we recall how hard it was for “old all-thumbs-us” to acquire the knack at first?  It makes it easier to empathize when other awkward hands find it tough as well.  Doesn’t this, then, contain a teaching for us about compassion, compassion in thought and in deed?  It also implies learning responsibility, for if we are ever to teach and guide others in picking up some bit of handicraft, we’d better be sure to start ourselves from the bottom up, paying attention to our mistakes, fixing the things we break, knowing it inside out.  And if, in our newly won skillfulness, we start to get uppish proud and could benefit from a medicinal snack of humble pie, we need only try our hand at some unfamiliar handiwork, something we thought such a snap as to be beneath us—like managing a smoky wood-fire barbecue on a windy day, or hanging a bathroom door so that it smoothly clicks closed, or installing a 3-way electrical box in a tight corner, or just bending over for a few hours to harvest green beans.  Almost anything will do, almost anything will quickly bring us out of our fantasies and back to the realities of our human condition.

Conjure up now that last minute rush before lunch.  The others are running in to wash, the table needs to be set, the pot’s threatening to boil over, the food must be stirred or it will certainly burn, the phone’s ringing and someone is knocking at the front door.  Isn’t there something to learn here about those fine, pleasingly abstract concepts “serenity” and “presence”?  When friends break up laughing to see us covered head to foot with flour while we’re hard at it rolling out pie doughs, or mock our ridiculous inability to sew up a hem or cook rice or diaper a baby or plant a block of trees in a simple line grid over a rolling-hill landscape—we can appreciate the lessons so freely offered us about having a sense of humor, relating with others, and sincerely recognizing our own inferiority.  Can we join in the laughter, at least a little?  Actually, one may well “receive the teaching” years after one has had the teaching experience; only then, at long last and after much maturation, does it ever “click.”

We need to procure knowledge.  One does not ever quite know what a “house” is till one has been in every spider-webbed corner of it, up in the attic, down into the basement crawling space, fixing and repairing and remodeling.  Could one possibly attain to the gift of analogy for communicating deep-soul verities if one has no practical analogical basis?  We need to acquire precision.  That time you cut that nice, new piece of wood or cloth in half, did the pieces fit where they were supposed to?   Did you “measure twice and cut once,” or vice versa?  We need to be realistic and honest.  After you cleaned and dried the dishes and swept out the kitchen, did you look again?  Was everything really finished?  When our companion showed us yet another, better way to do the washing up, were we open enough to listen and learn?  Did we notice our typical internal reactions of annoyance to criticism, and learn from them, too? 

We need to bring our inner and outer worlds into harmony.  If one starts to try at home to clean every day at least one extra thing a little bit better—a pot, under a counter, a closet—then one starts to notice dirty places that one has grown used to and starts to plan ahead for what can be cleaned next.  And then, while putting assiduous order in the kitchen, bedroom and workshop, one proceeds the same way with one’s disorderly mind and heart.

Let’s ask ourselves yet again:  how can we better receive the teaching?  Nobody gets all the teaching, all the time; nobody gets none, never.  It’s not yes or no—there’s a scale.  How can we better enter into the flow of it and know the plenitude of just being there, not entirely in function of the results and fruits of our efforts, but just working for work’s sake, entering into a silent dialogue and feedback process with life?  All these are teaching concepts: are they also day-to-day actual realities?  Can you remember moments when you worked very hard with very little gain, almost literally scratching for cents?  Picking up endless quantities of rotting cider apples from an orchard floor, for example, or shoveling out chicken or cow or rabbit manure from a stable, or making beds and cooking and scrubbing and generally slaving to all—did you give in to hating it, or were you just there, flowing?

We once had to clear a fair amount of brush from an old wooded lot, and to sweat and stomp and pull and push as a team to load it high and fat on our flatbed truck.  Then, off to a near-by sanitary landfill which was being prepared to be a riverside park.  My God.  Such an awful retching stench amid the mountainous muck and gunk, with the grinding churning engine shriekings of the lines of big garbage dumpsters and the huge dwarfing bulldozers, with us in the middle of the wheeling, screaming, fighting scavenging seagulls.  For us—a few days’ hectic rushing, a few trips into the refuse pile, an unforgettable experience one would not wish to be soon repeated.  For the men who worked in that unholy mess, and for those working right this moment and forever in garbage heaps around the world, it was and it is a daily, brutalizing, continued monotony, a sacrifice the rest of us depend on and benefit from.  Should one not be grateful for this tiny, acrid taste of participation, and of disattachment, and yes, of decay and death as well?

Notwithstanding, if amidst such a desolate abyss we may discover the teaching about transience and death, may we not too, in certain possibly rare, fortunate moments, discover it about archetypal notions such as “resurrection” as well?  Indeed, we may—and very occasionally do.  One such moment for us was on a holiday, a special day of celebration and thankfulness.  There was a break in the flow of the festivities, and so we decided to take advantage and finally finish that last lingering detail of a demolition clean-up job we’d being doing:  the needed razing and carting away of the old dilapidated farm latrine outhouse standing outside our door.  Only the privy’s broken concrete base slab remained.  We pried it up in pieces with heavy iron bars, got a look underneath, and—Great  Blazing Stars Above!  What was waiting for us there in the rubble!  A lovely statuette of blissfully meditating Buddha!  We cleaned up the partially corroded metal to reveal its soft chocolate honey sheen and mounted it on a nicely grained chunk of wood.  A smile of love, peace, and blessing humbly enthroned in our living room; a godly gift buried beyond living memory, entombed in such a place and found on such a day—we see it every day, and remember.  Doesn’t it seem to you, too, that the teaching and the joy really do often lie buried within our manual laborings?  Lie hidden in garbage dumps and in soapy sinks and in nursery school walls?  They lie there just waiting for us to see and bring out into the sun—obscure, unrecognized doorways of life and learning that we, even we, may discover and may open, and whose thresholds we may cross.

This article was originally published in Seeds of Unfolding, Vol. VII, Number 3, 1990. 

Leonard Ross lives and works in a spiritual community of Cafh in rural New York.           
To find out more about communities of Cafh, visit