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The Enlightened Plumber: Grounding the Spiritual
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The Enlightened Plumber: Grounding the Spiritual
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The Enlightened Plumber: Grounding the Spiritual
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Articles
10 January 2023

The Enlightened Plumber: Grounding the Spiritual

In early adulthood, Pierz Newton-John escaped the trauma of an unhappy adolescence and sought enlightenment in India. What he learned through his experience is that the spiritual life begins at home.

Written by Pierz Newton-John

This story originally ran in issue #71 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

To descend from this mountain of superiority into the fray of the ordinary, and to find one’s gift and one’s place is a difficult comedown. It is far more admirable to me when a person can steadfastly manifest the loving kindness of Buddhist (and indeed Christian, Islamic, Jewish) teaching in the messy brawl of family and work life than in the rarefied sanctum of spiritual practice where being enlightened can so easily become little more than a set of affectations: a hushed and singsong tone of voice, a saintly, imperturbable manner. The true humility of service lies in its very unseen and unglamorous nature. As I am currently blessed (sometimes cursed) with a three-year-old child, I cannot help but think of the service of parenthood – and particularly, of motherhood – in this respect. Though so often unvalued and unsung, the forging of even a single human being is an enormous labour, one that breaks people who are unprepared for its sacrifice. It takes every fibre of one’s heart and soul and confronts one with a dozen moral and philosophical conundrums a day. I know my task is to love, but how? What does this impossible, and impossibly beautiful, being truly need of me? And even if I know, can I give it at five am when I haven’t had a decent sleep in weeks? This is spiritual practice.

An aeon ago, at the start of my adult life, I dropped out of the science–law degree that I had chosen for no better reason than “having the marks” and entered a tumultuous period of existential and spiritual seeking. I had emerged from a miserable adolescence in the Australian public school system with a broken self-esteem and little sense of who I was or what I wanted in life. A series of magic mushroom trips catapulted me out of the chrysalis of my teenage self into a new world of psychological and spiritual possibilities, but the truths revealed in those partly-ecstatic, partly-nightmarish experiences left me disoriented and caught between fevers of spiritual inflation and crushing bouts of depression that were the legacy of years of high school bullying. I travelled to India for a six-month sojourn that remains the greatest adventure of my life. On a shoestring budget of $1500 for the entire trip, I traversed the subcontinent from one flea-bitten backpackers to another, delirious with freedom, and spent nights on the top of a truck winding through the precarious roads of Himachal Pradesh, watching the last sun set snowy mountainsides aflame. I found my way to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama in exile, where I studied Tibetan Buddhism and tried to meditate my way to enlightenment.

I returned transformed – or so I felt – sure that my life could never be the same. But back in Melbourne, I soon realised I was still deeply lost. Out of money, and with no study, I took a job in a university mail room, a miserable comedown from the peaks of India. One day in the corridor I saw one of my old high school tormentors. I tried to dodge him, but he cornered me. Seeing the mail-bag in my hand he said, “You smart guys sure have done well for yourselves.” I turned away, and he jumped on my back just as he’d done in school, in that moment crushing out of me the last trace of any spiritual grandiosity.

I learned a simple and humbling truth in that moment: that the answers to one’s difficulties in life are not to be found on the tops of mountains. Peak experiences, however sublime, fade. The journey through the valley of real life – the entanglements and difficulties of family, the heartache and vulnerability of love, the struggle with stubborn and exasperating personal complexes, the search for meaningful work – none of these things could be transcended. There was no way but through. In Kashmir I’d met a Japanese man who had been travelling for 26 years. He was in his 40s but had the face of a man 20 years younger. He would play his shakuhachi flute on the roof of the hotel at night, a haunting and mournful sound like wind blowing over the surface of the moon. We attended a ceremony with a local shaman and she turned to him the in the blaze of her trance and commanded him, “Find a teacher!” This eerie injunction clearly disconcerted him. He became withdrawn. I passed his room one night and saw him lying on his back on the floor with one arm flung across his face. Loneliness radiated from him like a lamp. Soon after he bought a donkey and walked out alone towards the mountains with the intention of crossing into Tibet by the high passes. His was a life lived without ever descending into the valley, in solitude and a kind of beauty, yet it was a life few could endure.

“Spiritual bypassing” is the term sometimes used in the self-styled conscious community for the attempt to deploy spiritual ideas and practices to avoid confronting life head-on. Its most pernicious manifestation in my view is the pseudo-spiritual worldview of The Secret: the 2006 New Age manifesto which proclaims the infinite abundance of the universe and promotes the notion of “manifesting” one’s desires through visualisations and the dismantling of one’s “scarcity mindset.” In the movie of the same name, a man in meditation is seen moving the invisible gearstick of the BMW he covets as he tries to draw it to him through the law of attraction: a ludicrous and shameful inversion of the purpose of spiritual practice. I once asked the meditation pioneer Sharon Salzberg for her definition of wisdom, and she gave a startlingly simple and beautiful answer: “An understanding of the connections between all things.” If that is wisdom, then the idea that BMWs can be extracted from the ether without heed of the factories they come from, the energy needed to make them, the workers who labour to build them, the wages those labourers are paid, the mines that extract the metals from which those cars are built, the carbon that goes into them and comes out of them … surely is the definition of folly.

In recent years I have come to think of the world as constituted of relationships and nothing else. This is my understanding today of the Buddhist teaching that used to perplex me when I sat in meditation on the Dharma back when I was a 21-year-old “bypasser”: the lack of inherent existence of all phenomena. The key lies in the word “inherent.” Existence is relational and all things consist in nothing but the networks of relationships in which they are embedded. Democritus had it wrong. There is no “thing of things”, no ultimate tiny building block from which all higher things derive their solidity, but only the elusive, ever-changing flux of relationships of All with All.

There is the story of the village plumber who one day stumbled upon enlightenment. Dazzled by the splendour of his vision, he dropped his tools and walked away from his village to climb the nearest mountain, where he adopted the life of a monk, each day communing with the cosmos. One day he looked down and saw the villagers he had lived his life amongst ascending the mountain. Had they come to learn from him the secrets of existence? He welcomed them and spoke at length about the profound truths that had been revealed to him. The villagers listened politely until at last, one coughed and said, “This is all very interesting, Jim, but we were wondering if you still do plumbing work? Our toilets are all blocked up!”

We have a need of spiritual teachers, but it is right that the saints among us should be few, or our toilets would all overflow, the lights would go out, and our children would be well-versed in mindfulness, but unable to read or add.

The spiritual has a certain glamorous lure, especially for those of a sensitive temperament for whom the everyday world is a harsh and difficult place. I have known too many people who have found refuge from their adjustment troubles in the subtle superiority of being “more evolved”, “more conscious” than others, a kind of egotism that once may have been harmless enough but has taken a dark turn in the age of misinformation and conspiracy. People who don’t share one’s beliefs in a sinister, manipulated global reality are dismissed as “sheeple” with an arrogance and contempt that is anything but evolved.

To descend from this mountain of superiority into the fray of the ordinary, and to find one’s gift and one’s place is a difficult comedown. It is far more admirable to me when a person can steadfastly manifest the loving kindness of Buddhist (and indeed Christian, Islamic, Jewish) teaching in the messy brawl of family and work life than in the rarefied sanctum of spiritual practice where being enlightened can so easily become little more than a set of affectations: a hushed and singsong tone of voice, a saintly, imperturbable manner. The true humility of service lies in its very unseen and unglamorous nature. As I am currently blessed (sometimes cursed) with a three-year-old child, I cannot help but think of the service of parenthood – and particularly, of motherhood – in this respect. Though so often unvalued and unsung, the forging of even a single human being is an enormous labour, one that breaks people who are unprepared for its sacrifice. It takes every fibre of one’s heart and soul and confronts one with a dozen moral and philosophical conundrums a day. I know my task is to love, but how? What does this impossible, and impossibly beautiful, being truly need of me? And even if I know, can I give it at five am when I haven’t had a decent sleep in weeks? This is spiritual practice.

If you are like me, you probably ask yourself at least a dozen times a week if you are doing enough. And still you lurch on through your imperfect life, driving your petrol-powered car, feeling helpless to effect change. It is the bane of our time to have the intractable state of the world piped directly into our consciousness from dawn to dusk – nay, dawn to dawn – seven days a week. At least those who suffered the downfall of a civilisation in other historical times only experienced its local manifestations and were not burdened with the curse of Too Much Information. Only kings could see the big picture. Nowadays we are all like helpless emperors, surveying the ravages from our digital palace windows, filled with a terrible sense of personal responsibility yet often able to do little more than sign online petitions and make monthly donations to Avaaz.

But this sense of responsibility for the whole is itself a sort of inflation. The great planetary and civilisational crisis that we confront is far beyond any one of us to change. There are certainly those who, through good or bad fortune, find themselves at that critical fulcrum in history where a single action can turn the course of the world. But by definition, such people are a tiny minority. This does not mean we should surrender to despair. We each inhabit a microcosm of family, community and work that is, in its own way, a world. And it is here that our actions count, and count enormously. We cannot see how the ripples of our actions will spread across the pool of the world, the relations of All with All, and what wonders they might work in distant times and places. But this is what it means to be a good person, and not a saint.


This story appears in Issue 71 of Dumbo Feather, exploring Beyond Ego. Get your copy online to read the story.

Pierz Newton-John

Pierz Newton-John is a writer, psychotherapist and founding faculty member of The School Of Life Melbourne. His short story collection Fault Lines was published by Spineless Wonders in 2012.

 

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