I recently read Erika’s post “Finding the Extra In Your Ordinary.” Erika’s insightful description of how she applies the wisdom of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral”) gave me moments of pause as I reflected on her words.
And almost as if on cue, as I was making my way through her post, the sunlight in the window came through and lit up my hands, my keyboard, and warmed up my entire workspace. I couldn’t help but stop and take in all of the beauty surrounding me. Beauty that I hadn’t really noticed while I had been sitting in my own little world checking my emails. The sunlight was too powerful to ignore as I looked around the café. I noticed for the first time a plant that had been there all along. I saw the beautiful and intricate designs in the wood paneling near my table. The people sitting near me suddenly became people, rather that the barely noticed objects they had previously formed in my limited awareness. I was sitting in a “cathedral” and I hadn’t even noticed.
I then looked outside and had a view of the San Remo building overlooking Central Park. As my eyes feasted on the towers of this iconic structure, I began to view it as a cathedral as well, thinking what an excellent opportunity I had to see an actual cathedral-like building with which to ponder the results of some long ago rock pile.
As I looked at the stones of the building, I began to think of where they came from, how they made it here. I thought of all the men and women who played a role in creating the building. Going backwards, I began to imagine all of the work, effort, skill, and design that went into it. Someone had to transport the materials to the site. Someone had to create the initial design for the building. Someone had to raise capital in order to fund the project. Someone had to physically put stone upon stone and complete all the many other jobs required to construct a building. There were countless people who played a variety of roles, working together to create this marvelous thing…
And suddenly it hit me, instead of seeing the cathedral I was seeing the ‘rock pile.’ It occurred to me that from a Buddhist perspective, this way of seeing is an important practice that expands one’s view of reality—if one is to contemplate a cathedral, then one may do well to see the ‘rock pile.’ This may sound a bit counter-intuitive at first, but bear with me.
From a material standpoint, if we see only the cathedral standing before us, then we may forget all of the effort, activity, vision, and determination that was needed to create the cathedral. This is a fun exercise to consider. In the Buddhist view, if you look at a chair and then ask yourself, what makes this a chair? Or what is the essential part of this that gives it it’s “chairness?” …then you will be challenged to find the answer. If you take one of the legs, that’s not a chair, it’s a leg. If you take the seat, that’s not a chair either. What about the screws holding it together? The wood from which it was fashioned? None of these parts are “chair.” What we may begin to see is that we have a collection of objects from a variety of different sources assembled by someone who is most likely unknown to us. In order that you and I may communicate more effectively, we agree to call this assembled object a chair.
This type of insight allows for an expanded view of our relationships as well. When we see the people before us, our friends, our family members, our co-workers, are we seeing only the cathedrals that they have become? Are we seeing only the person physically standing here before us? If we look a little closer, we may see the ‘rock pile’ too. The pain, the suffering, the joys, the victories, the countless experiences that have come together to create each person so uniquely—they are all there. These many experiences have come together to form the person we have become. They are the ‘rock pile’ without which there can be no cathedral.
So the next time you’re having trouble connecting with someone, ask yourself what it is that you are seeing. Why does he frustrate me so? Why does she not seem to hear what I’m saying? How is it that he has made that mistake again? When this happens try looking at the cathedral… and the ‘rock pile.’ As the Buddha taught all those centuries ago, “to open our own heart, we must embrace the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows” of life. These ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows exist within us all. They are our ‘rock pile.’