My root teacher Thich Nhat Hanh taught me to rest. Once a week at his monasteries, monks and nuns would schedule a lazy day — a day without plans, formal practice, or early rising. On those days, when I stayed at the Plum Village monastery in southern France, I would wake with the sun, gather breakfast, and allow my body to guide me. Some days, I would bump into friends and we would devise adventures on the fly: gathering mulberries with an afternoon cup of tea, dancing in the yurt, listening to the pianist in the upper hamlet. Other days, my feet would take me in gentle steps past the lotus pond, to wander through the pine forest.
One lazy morning, after thunderstorms had softened the earth, I ventured into the forest and followed the river upstream. This was a path I knew well, from slow walks led by nuns whose tents were nestled in nearby fields. Eventually I reached the borders of a neighboring field. There, I knelt down into the puddles forming pools of soft clay, scooping up handfuls of earth with bare hands, the squish and squelch of wet clay tingling with the energy of wonder. I was alive and one with the earth. There was no self to cling to, just the arising and falling of one moment into the next.
When I returned to the monastery, the earthy grey brown handfuls became coil pots for wildflowers, pots that would grace the dining hall for all to enjoy. This was creation that arose out of wonder and rest, and an offering from the earth that came without expectation of reward. In this safe space, where my needs for shelter, sustenance, and care were met each day, I too could let go of a need to produce for reward. The reward was already given, in the wandering, the joy, and in the making.
A few years later, I traveled to Hue, Vietnam to pay my respects to my teacher. One day, during working meditation, the nuns assigned me to shovel clay out of the main road. The clay was too soft for motorcycles and bikes to travel on, and would be removed via wheelbarrows to an empty field. As we shoveled, the nuns tickled me with their joy and stories. Wheeling one load together, a sister gestured to me to get into the basket. I will never forget how she wheeled me up the red clay road to the monastery in the wheelbarrow, both of us laughing with pure joy. She said to me, “Balance, not strength, is how we wheel things heavier than our ability to carry.”
Later, I returned to the empty field to gather handfuls of this clay. I soaked the clay in water, freeing rocks and other debris, and bundled what was left for drying in the sun. When the clay was ready, the sisters and I met in the shade of the ancestor trees, delighting in the smooth, pliable red earth – earth that would become, in our hands, tiny clay figurines for the tea table. This clay had emerged in its own time. The challenge was to meet each stage of its transformation with presence and care, letting go of my own timelines and desire for production.
In western capitalist society, where a person’s value is often measured in hours of work or units of production, the word “laziness” can have negative connotations. Aware of these associations, Thich Nhat Hanh was once asked if “lazy days” might instead be called “personal practice days”. He responded, “The Dalai Lama is called His Holiness. I would like to be called His Laziness.”
Lazy days are thus a gift from Thay. They are an invitation to play outside of the lines of capitalist production, to pause the over-scheduling of workdays and evenings, and to fully come home to myself. To hold myself as a being worthy of care and love, full stop.
On a recent weekend, wandering the golden California hills after the rains, I again found myself boots deep in clay, recalling similar moments in France and Vietnam. This time, the earth was dark charcoal grey, covering a hiking trail lined by ferns and old trees. For a moment I fought to persist on the path, growing frustrated by feet sinking ever deeper into clay. And then I paused, remembering my teacher and his lesson of laziness. Go slowly, enjoy the reality of the present moment. Take your time. Play. I knelt to touch the earth, basking in reverence for the abundance of the offering.
In countless lazy days, Thay has taught me to respond to what is, to create beauty from what is offered – be it clay from the earth, or challenging situations at work or in the world. The present moment becomes enough. I learn to embrace what is in front of me. If there are dishes in the sink, I roll up my sleeves to wash. If I am experiencing loneliness, I sink into soft and loving touch, a hot shower, my own presence. If I am angry, I take a walk, a kickboxing class, or make space for a free write.
We can meet the suffering around us with this same immediacy. If a person is hungry, let us purchase them a hot meal. If someone requires shelter, let us find them a home. If businesses are struggling, let us find ways to support. Each response, whatever it is, can arise from a deep reservoir of wisdom and ease, an immediate intuition for what must be done. Not intellectual striving but intuitive knowing.