Thursday, September 1, 2011

Boulders, Pebbles and Sand

This 600 Minutes A Week Dare has finally given me the tool to make use of a lesson I learned a long time ago, but never could quite implement right. It's the principle illustrated in a famous Zen koan (or teaching parable) which, like so many koans, which makes it's meaning so obvious that you come away thinking you've learned something.

Except I've never been able to make good use of the lesson.

Here's the story:

A teacher (who appears to be teaching on a beach in New England, as far as I can tell) fills a bucket with large rocks. He puts the rocks in to the bucket until the bucket can hold no more.

"Is this full?" he asks his students.

"Yes, it is full," say the students. "You can fit no more rocks into the bucket.

So the teacher starts picking up pebbles and dropping them into the bucket to trickle down between the large rocks. He shakes the bucket a little to make sure the stones filter down properly, until he can get no more small stones into the bucket.

"Is it full?" he asked.

"Yes, teacher, it's full. You can't get any more pebbles into the bucket."

Then the teacher pours the sand into the bucket, and it filters down between the small stones and the big rocks, and he shakes it to make sure every little pocket is full of sand.

"NOW, is it full?"

The students hesitate, but on looking around they see nothing more that the teacher can fit in between the sand, and they say the bucket is indeed full.

And this time the teacher agrees with them. But he's not done with the lesson.

He pours the bucket out on the ground -- the sand, the pebbles and the rocks -- until the bucket is completely empty. Then he fills it again, but this time, with just sand and nothing else.

"Is it full?" he asks.

"" say the students.

"Oh? Then try to get any more of anything -- rocks, stones or sand."

And of course they couldn't. Sand fills every empty bit of space, and leaves no room for anything else.

The lesson of this story is supposed to be that you need to reserve space for the big important things by putting them in first, and then letting the little unimportant "sand" things take care of themselves.

I've never been able to quite make that darned story apply to real life. Boulders and tasks are just two different beasts. Blocking out time just leaves an empty space in the calendar for sand to get in. And I can't put the most important tasks first, because I don't do those things well first thing in the morning.

But now enlightenment has struck.

This by-the-minute dare has been the first time I have really felt that I've made this thing work. The key was to realize that the thing boulders and tasks have in common is not size -- but definition. A boulder is well defined. Sand isn't.

By defining the task as "nose in book" I empowered myself to actually manage it.


See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Good way to think through the problem!

I saw this story demonstrated in a class once. Unfortunately, the teacher spilled the container both big rocks and pebbles and sand went flying on the carpet. It all made about the same amount of mess... :)

The Daring Novelist said...

Oh, that's funny.

The other thing I figured out is something that isn't in the original zen lesson (at least I believe it isn't) but rather something added by the non-Zen efficiency gurus who retell the story.

They call the boulders "important." But that's wrong. There isn't a relative value involved. It IS a matter of the nature of the object, not the value. Same with tasks.

ModWitch said...

What I take away from that story, as a mama, is that you can fill a bucket with small things as well as large, and the bucket is most full with both. So a momentary hug or a giggle at the table - there's often room for those, even when I'm tired due to boulder lifting.

The Daring Novelist said...

That's a Mommy lesson, all right! (And part of reason why Mommies trump Zen masters.)

Sam Lee said...

Great point about the shape of the boulders. This and the Mastery post were really worth reading. Thanks!

The Daring Novelist said...

Glad they were of use. Thanks for visiting, Sam.