I spent several months last fall living at a Zen monastery in the wilderness. At Tassajara, the head cook carried the mice she caught daily in Havahart live traps to a trailhead far from the kitchen to release them. This was how she met her responsibility to keep the kitchen clean and honored her Buddhist vow not to kill.
While I was at Tassajara, I found out later, mice were getting comfortable in my house many miles away. When I came home, I found droppings in the utensil drawer and in the cupboard where I keep pots and pans. After my mother and I cleaned up the mouse poop she hadn't seen, her vision dimmed by age like her hearing, I found more droppings in the laundry room. The mice were eating kitty litter, the expensive, clumping kind made from wheat that one of my cats prefers. I bought a plastic bin for the litter. I sealed off the entry point to the kitchen cupboard. But a month later, the mice are still living in the crawl space. I regularly catch them in my own Havahart trap.
You may wonder why I don't simply release my cats into the crawl space to deal with my mouse problem. My cats are pampered indoor cats, 14 and 16 years old, who think food comes from a can at regularly spaced intervals.
And this blog isn't really about my mouse problem. Or rather, it's about how having mice in the house makes me think about the problem of being human. It's about mind mice: the "pests" that reside in the dark corners of my consciousness -- difficult emotions, unchecked opinions, beliefs and judgments -- that can do a lot of damage if left to their own devices.
Like your common brown house mouse, mind mice can enter through the tiniest hole -- ¼ inch! Behind the walls, under cover of darkness, whether or not I'm aware of their presence, they are always gnawing on something.
So, what can be done?
First, I can't know I have a mind mouse problem (and we all do) until I make an effort to see them. Some signs are hard to ignore -- like a flash of anger. Sometimes the evidence is not so obvious -- like a vaguely critical thought. With real mice, the search for entry points can be elusive, and the same goes for mind mice. I may not be able to determine exactly why I'm afraid. But I can know that I am afraid, and that's a start.
Removing the sources of food and sealing off entry points comes next. This is a painstaking process. With actual mice, I can pay a pest guy to crawl around in the dark and seal up holes. With mind mice, I have to do it myself because I'm the only one who can shine the light on the possible holes, who knows where my fear might want to make a nest.
Then comes catching the mind mice that remain inside. There are several options, including poison and trapping to kill, but I don't recommend either of these approaches. Given poison, real mice often die where they live. The same would probably happen with my anger, were I to try to poison it. It would only rot between the walls. Whether using glue traps or the more humane guillotine kind, traps leave a corpse behind, and the question of where to properly dispose of it. With mind mice, it's the same: How do I dispose of a feeling once I've lopped its head off? Where do the corpses of thoughts go? And what about when the trap only almost kills?
For the actual mice in my crawl space, I use live traps. I drive to the nearby regional park to release them. Some zoom across the grass, trying to get as far away from their confinement as quickly as possible. Some of them move slowly, afraid to leave the cage -- a cautious animal of prey in a big, grassy world.
Even if I'm annoyed I had to leave my warm house and delay my arrival at my writing desk to make the trip, I feel happy when the mouse hops off to the rest of his life. I'm glad for its freedom, as its freedom is emblematic and connected to my own. The mouse may be scooped up by a hawk before day is done. But that's between the mouse and the hawk. I've done my part, which is to be a human being living by a vow: Transmit the life of Buddha and do not kill.
The Buddha didn't have to worry about mice in his crawl space. But he did concern himself deeply with the mice of the mind. I think his message was clear and applies to both: We can be strict, with ourselves and others, and benevolent. We can invite what we do not want into the contained space of the heart, hold it there a while, and ultimately, release it -- all without killing. To rid a space of any kind of mouse requires discipline, persistence, and, most importantly, kindness.
I don't have to hate or shove away what I want to remove from the premises. In fact, I can even love it and wish it well while letting it go.
For more by Colleen Morton Busch, click here.
For more on mindfulness, click here.