I watched a pot boil, recently.
The pot, an eight-cup saucepan filled with water, was heating up on the stove. I was planning to make oatmeal. A large window near the stove cast light on the water’s surface. The glossy surface lay still like a pool of mercury, as smooth as glass. Soon, tiny whiffs of steam rose from the water as if they were ephemeral puffs of vapor dancing to and fro like will-o-the wisps, and evaporating as fast as they materialized. It was like watching mist rising from a marsh. Bubbles appeared on the surface. They darted about, like water skimmers scoot around on a pond. The tiny bursts of ghostly mists slowly coalesced to become a solid curtain of steam as the entire pot boiled and roiled, its contents abandoning itself in an ecstasy of pure physical energy. The metamorphosis was now almost complete. In a matter of minutes, if left undisturbed, the entire contents of the pot would be transformed. What was once liquid would disappear to become a gas and be subsumed into the atmosphere. Who says the watched pot never boils? We say that only because after we turn up the heat, we take our eye off the pot.
What happened was as ordinary as it gets and yet I was beholding one of the universe’s fundamental phenomena, the transfer of energy. It was a moment of Zen.
Changes are endemic to life here on the planet and to the cosmos as well. There’s no getting away from it; nothing stays the same. We notice most metamorphoses only after the fact, when the changes have been long under way. That’s certainly the case with aging, overdrawn checking accounts and flat tires. Farmers, too, sow seed and then wait to see what the soil may yield. Before that first shoot appears, a lot has been going on under the surface. It used to be the case, too, with human birth. No one knew how the state of the emerging infant might look until the advent of the sonogram. There’s something marvelous in witnessing the seamless, and sometimes not so seamless, transformations of life as they’re under way.
Just how and when changes occur is up for grabs. There was a Ginko tree outside my office years ago in Baltimore. In the Fall, the fan shaped leaves turned bright yellow and clung to the tree long after other trees had shed theirs. When the leaves finally dropped, they all fell in a single day. My staff and I would take bets on which day the Ginkgo would shed its leaves.
The changes and transformations in life create a mood of anticipation. Much of what we anticipate is pleasurable. The excitement of anticipation is like the experience of hope. Hope anticipates changes, typically welcome ones, but we rarely enjoy knowing exactly when change will occur and what form it will take. Until it becomes evident, we wait. I reckon we spend most of our lives waiting, if not necessarily always watching.
Attitudes toward change vary. Adventurous souls welcome it and relish what the next moment will bring. They live expectantly. People like me, more timid in constitution, tend to be wary of change and live more reactively. The saying, “I don’t like surprises” describes me well. Yet for all that, when surprise discoveries foist themselves upon me regardless of my attempts to manage the flow of events, I often find that I am indeed surprised and delighted for it. The ordinary can surprise us like nothing else. It can be a moment of Zen.
That’s how it was that morning when, to my own surprise, I found myself almost absurdly fascinated as I watched this common transfer of energy. I must have boiled water a million times in my life and never watched the entire process. One of the great marvels of the universe had been going on right under my nose and I never looked at it carefully. I wonder how much else goes on that I never see.
Serendipitous discoveries like the one I had that morning can be awkward to explain, especially to someone who may not have experienced its excitement in the same way. I say that because my wife had been doing errands that morning and when she returned, she asked off-handedly what I had been doing. “Watching a pot boil.” She looked at me with that expression of bland tolerance, the kind one sees on the faces of people who are sure you’re not playing with a full deck, but you don’t really pose any harm.
And such may be the point of it all. Moments like that, a moment of Zen, is often idiosyncratic but peculiarly moving. When it comes to those moments when the commonplace suddenly comes out to meet us in what seems an unfamiliar costume, revealing itself in a character by which we have never recognized it before, and we see for the first time what, for so long, we’ve been looking at.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.