09/04/2014 02:05 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

Enlightenment Is Where You Least Expect It

Justin Lambert via Getty Images

I once lived at a Zen monastery for a year. At 8 a.m. every morning, after an hour of meditation and the morning ceremony, it was "temple clean up" time. Teams were dispatched with mops and buckets to the cloisters, cupboards, common rooms, Master's vestibule, the Ceremony Hall and the Buddha's altar. Two teams were dispatched outside to weed the lawn and rabbit-proof the trees.

We "lay trainees" -- trainees who are not monks -- gathered in the dining room before the appointed time and stood there in silence, waiting for the Chief Novice monk to delegate our tasks. As she entered to briskly read out our names, I hoped as hard as I could that my task would be a pleasant one.

I definitely didn't want to do the rabbit-proofing; you had to go through the palaver of dressing up to go outside, it was cold, and the proofing wires hurt my fingers. Cooking breakfast on the other hand was a nice job -- it was warm there and the status seemed higher. Only a handful of trainees were trusted to help with the cooking.

But instead, every morning of the first three months of my stay, my heart sank: I was dispatched to clean the public toilets. It was boring, it smelled, it had no status whatsoever and it was really hard work. There was no possibility of doing a quick job of it then bunking off. If you want to find a put-upon Zen trainee in the morning, look in the toilets. They'll be there on their knees scrubbing the porcelain and lifting other people's hairy mess out of the shower drain.

Back then I was still convinced that monks were magic. So I felt obliged to carefully scrub every tile and every crack between every tile, because otherwise they'd just know what a bad person I was, and I'd surely be villified and cast out of the temple! If a monk entered, I'd even arrange my face into a put-upon expression so they'd understand how seriously I was taking my task.

Oh how I hated it. I wondered if a monk had somehow noticed that I hated it, and had given it to me on purpose as a test of faith. I wondered why I of all trainees deserved the lowliest job - did that mean that I was the lowliest trainee of all? In my mind ran through a list of all the people whom I must then be lowlier than. Or could it be a perverse universal will deciding all this? It was far too much of a coincidence that I got the worst job every day.

I started plotting. Prayer clearly didn't work. I became really helpful in the kitchen at lunchtime, in the hope that I'd be asked there in the morning, too. I dropped hints to the Chief Novice about how wonderful other work was. I tried to volunteer to dig ditches instead. I pretended to embrace toilet cleaning, just in case it was intended as a punishment, so they'd realize that my task must be changed. Finally, I tried the classic trick: doing it badly so I wouldn't be asked back. But it was all to no avail. 'Mia' and 'the toilets' were inextricably intertwined at 8 a.m.

One day, scrubbing the porcelain, I felt something shift inside. I was giving up. No thoughts or tactics had helped me, and no one was coming to the rescue. I was stuck there, alone, while everyone else had much more fun jobs. I thought nothing for a while, and just cleaned. Then I thought I might as well do a good job of it, while I was there anyway. In fact if I poured all of my heart and soul into it, I'd feel much better. And why shouldn't I be doing it? Someone's got to. Wait - aren't I lucky, in a way, to be fulfilling a role? Toilet cleaning is worthwhile. Before it was discovered, people were dying of typhoid en masse. Perhaps I was slowly but surely saving people's lives!

I became proud of my job, but only just enough for a normal level of mental comfort to return. I didn't think it was better than all the other jobs -- but it certainly wasn't the worst. All jobs were vital. My favorite part was that we were all working together to create a community. As I carried the recycled tissues outside, I passed the cloister-sweepers as if in symphony. We nodded to each other in happy recognition.

I also thought I'd try an experiment. Whenever I found myself miserable about cleaning, I would turn it around 180 degrees and decide to be happy doing it. To my shock, it worked immediately! I was happy because I'd decided to be happy! If only I'd discovered this simple knack 20 years earlier. But no matter.

Whenever the tasks were distributed after that, I decided that no matter what task I was given, I would accept it wholeheartedly. Rabbit-proofing? Great! Basin-scrubbing? Wonderful! Cooking? Sure! Life was so much easier when I yielded my will to whatever my fate was that day. As a result of judging jobs less, I judged people and myself less. I stopped worrying about why things happened the way they did -- that just wasn't important. How I dealt with it was the thing that made the difference to me; and that wasn't rocket science, it was simple acceptance.

Of course, as soon as I was happy about cleaning the toilets, I was relegated to the kitchen...