In the meditation hall we do not wear shoes. It's a way to keep the floor clean, which is important since many people sit on it when meditating. But we do wear socks, especially when the weather is cold.
When I was on retreat a few weeks ago, during an extremely cold night, the water pipes in the meditation hall froze. As the first period of sitting meditation in the afternoon began with the sun warming the building, there was a loud popping, then a gurgling sound followed by a shower of water from the ceiling.
As water began flooding the floor, I ran for a bucket. When I returned I stripped off my socks and stepped into the water, trying to catch what was falling from the ceiling. I was quickly joined by another retreatant, Floyd, who stripped off his socks as well, while other retreatants ran to shut off the water.
After the water was mopped up, I grabbed my socks and returned to my meditation cushions. We settled in and continued with our meditation practice for the remainder of the day, our last full day of the retreat.
That evening, as I was packing, I noticed that the socks I had been wearing didn't look quite familiar. Although they were the same brand and color, these were in much better shape. The socks I thought I remembered putting on in the morning had been quite worn out in the heels while these were like new.
While I continued packing, the mind struggled with what to do. The first thought was to ignore the obvious, that these were Floyd's socks and he had mine. —The mind can be quite shameless, it seems.— There was a sense of not wanting to make a big deal out of it. But then there was the thought that these were a kind of wool sock that I have always regarded as somewhat of a luxury, so how could I just ignore that I had the newer pair of socks. Then there was the thought that it wouldn't be a big deal to Floyd, who is a kind and generous man.
Finally, though, there was the realization that while it might not make a difference to Floyd, it would make a difference to me. It would keep the mind and heart agitated. There would always be a sense of guilt if I didn't make the effort to exchange the socks. Each time I encountered Floyd, I realized, this uneasiness would come to mind and would interfere with my ability to be present with him.
As I had expected, when I brought the socks to Floyd's attention and we exchanged them, he commented that "In the scheme of things it's not a big deal." Immediately, though, I noticed that the mind became more clear and calm and the heart more open.
This was a lesson for me in why it is so important to be scrupulous with our ethics. When we are not, it comes between us and others and prevents trust and intimacy. When we are not scrupulous with our ethics, it leaves our minds agitated, even if only in a subtle way. This is probably part of the reason why the Buddha began his path of spiritual transformation with ethics and why all spiritual traditions emphasize ethics. Ethical behavior creates conditions of mind and heart that are conducive to meditation and to seeing things as they are.
So it's important to carry on the practices of Right, or ethical, Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood — and Right Socks.