Peeling An Orange

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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The famous pianist Paderewski once was asked to name the most important event in his life. "Whatever I happen to be doing at the moment is the most important," he said. "Whether playing Chopin or peeling an orange."

Paderewski's reply reveals one of life's great secrets—one of those secrets lying in the open, a secret of happiness. But for many of us the secret is difficult to practice. To live in the moment, to focus our faculties on the thing before us, however ordinary, demands intense attention as well as detachment from our usual self-preoccupations.

Most of the time, whether we're aware of it or not, we do not live in the present. We dwell on the past or dream the future, seeing everything through a film of desire and anxiety. The poet Shelley wrote, "We look before and after/And pine for what is not." We see the present moment not as "where it's really at" with ourselves, our fellow humans, and the universe—but a station on the route to something better. But the something better is always in the future and never arrives in the present.

This is especially true in our work. We focus on "getting it done" rather than the process. When we finish, satisfaction is short-lived—there always is something else to "get done." Trappist Thomas Merton said the ancient monks made similar distinction between work done with a Right Intention and work done with a Pure Intention. Work with a Right Intention is any honest work done well and for good purpose. This is the kind of work most of us do most of the time—with an eye on the result. But work done with a Pure Intention is performed in the moment, enjoyed for its own sake, with an eye on the work rather than on the result, whether writing a letter, building a house, or peeling an orange.

When we take pleasure in our work—lose or forget ourselves in our work—we are working with a Pure Intention. We may not be conscious of time passing. We are one with our work and no doubt doing our best work.

My wife and I heat our house with wood, and for a few minutes each day in winter we carry in logs. Ninety percent of the time I do this with a Right Intention—I do it well, but my mind is in the future, impatient to be done. But now and then (when the weather cooperates), I forget myself and the desire to finish. Perhaps I notice the colors and texture of lichen-covered bark or the sharp woody scent. My body, numb from desk sitting, awakes to the rhythms of bending and lifting, the heft of the logs, and walking through snow. The cold air tightens my skin and I see the sky's blazing blue. For a few moments I am alive and content. In such a moment I feel I could carry wood forever. I know how Paderewski felt peeling an orange.
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