"And the way out of suffering is meditation itself. To put it simply, we must be mindful."
An activity such as housework or a home improvement project offers an opportunity to watch the mind. On meditation retreats, these activities get labels such as "working meditation" or "yogi jobs." The common wisdom seems to hold that we should perform these activities in silence, paying full attention to the task at hand.
What happens when we do not perform these activities in silence, but instead listen to the Dhamma while engaging in these mundane tasks? Consider, for example, that you plan to spend many hours sanding and staining a large deck. Rather than focus exclusively on sanding over a period of hours, one could, for example, listen to Ajahn Amaro read from The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. In other words, what might happen if we do not give our full attention to sanding and decide to indulge the desire to accumulate knowledge?
Most people who own a home probably need to frequently engage in activities of this sort, such as vacuuming, raking, snow blowing, or lawn mowing. Could the "intellectual knowledge" gained by listening to Dhamma talks while doing these mundane activities lead to real wisdom? Can you prefer listening to Dhamma talks over silence without needing them? Can you just listen once in a while?
The followers of monastics, such as Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Sona, Ajahn Brahm, and Bhikkhu Bodhi, post hundreds or thousands of hours of recorded Dhamma talks on the Internet. Is the expectation that we only consume this audio while sitting quietly as we do in the Dhamma hall? Or do they assume people will listen while walking or engaging in some other mundane task?
Perhaps each individual must decide for themselves if multitasking like this leads to wholesome results. For instance, in a live Q&A this morning, Ajahn Amaro repeatedly said of Dhamma practice, "If it works, use it." Or in The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah (19) we find numerous passages that seem to suggest that in terms of ultimate truth, we need not concern ourselves too much with concepts such as "right" and "wrong":
"Whatever is wrong, throw it out. If it's right then take it and use it. But actually we practise in order to let go of both right and wrong. In the end we just throw everything out. If it's right, throw it out; wrong, throw it out!"
Certainly, we need to pay attention to how much time we invest in analyzing our practice since any view we cling to creates suffering. But can listening to Dhamma while doing other tasks produce beneficial results? Can we be present in those moments? Perhaps listening to the words of Ajahn Chah about our tendency to "forget impermanence, suffering and not-self" (12) cause us to consider the impermanence of the deck we are sanding. A deck is impermanent. At any given moment, a tree could fall on it or a support beam could break, rendering it useless. We certainly should not feel a strong attachment to a deck. If we only had a few minutes to live, the state of our deck would not be high on our list of priorities for contemplation. And thoughts of greed or anger seem much less likely to arise while listening to a Dhamma talk.
If we turn off the recording with the words of Ajahn Chah and instead work in silence, we cannot guarantee positive results. With the recording off, we are more likely to turn our thoughts to the political unrest and violence in the news of the day. These are the thoughts we naturally want to avoid. Thoughts like worry and doubt cause us to seek out sensual pleasures like audio recordings, and to run away from reality. But must all tasks be like meditation, where we investigate these thoughts rather than avoid them, as the Buddha taught?
Perhaps our deck project involves another person. If a friend or partner works alongside you, would you gain the most benefit from working in silence? Having a friend around might make working in silence difficult since society teaches us to fill silence with talking. Rather than fill the silence with the voice of Ajahn Amaro reading, we might distract our minds with our voices. A Dhamma talk could prove more helpful than idle chatter about politics, gossip, fashion, wars, vehicles, villages, towns, cities, kings, bandits, armies, food, drink, clothes, or the many other topics the Buddha suggested we avoid.
We each must decide what activities produce beneficial results. If we perform mundane tasks with a mind consumed by anger and resentment, we do not likely benefit. If we engage in home improvement but spend the whole time obsessing over questions like, "Why doesn't anyone else in the family help me?" or "Why does this responsibility always fall on me?" we might create more suffering, not less.
In the real world, we often get pulled out of the present moment, deeply engaged in tasks for our jobs or concerned about suffering in the world. Dhamma talks can provide a valuable service, bringing us back more consistently into the moment and invigorating our time each day on the cushion and our desire to learn the Dhamma. Then again, maybe there is nothing to learn. As Ajahn Chah (19) said:
"The Dhamma is the place where there's nothing — nothing at all."
Chah, Ajahn. The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Northumberland: Aruna Publications, 2011.