Zen of Housekeeping
Life as a kitchen sink.
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” — Xinxin Ming
Since last August, I’ve worked casually as a housekeeper. I’ve been assigned to clean in a variety of environments such as hospitals, large business offices, and college campuses. Most of my friends have taken jobs in retail, and while it’s easy to joke about how I’d rather clean than deal with people, the reality is that it’s been a humbling — and sometimes daunting — experience.
It’s not something I aimed for, it just sort of ended up happening — as life often does. However, being a teenaged boy meant that I didn’t really have any experience in this field, so a lot of my initial training was haphazardly on-site. There are times when I’ve found myself without knowing where supplies are and only having an hour to do three hours worth of work.
It can sometimes feel like a hopeless task, in the beginning, but the feeling of satisfaction when you’re finally finished makes it worth it, without fail. After half a year of I feel as though I’ve maybe learned something— and I’d like to share that.
Paradox of Work
Cleanliness, by definition, is next to impossible. Nothing you ever do will stay done. It is human to make a mess by mere existence. The input of our actions — our daily living — results in an output of waste.
Cycles, cycles, cycles. It is an endless repetition. But that’s what life truly is — you’ll have to wake up tomorrow just like you did today.
We create order for ourselves constantly, we have plans and we organize. Or we don’t, and find ourselves constrained and in a rudderless mess. If you dislike repetition, what you’re really saying is that you dislike life itself.
Benefits of Mindful Cleaning
Researchers found that people who washed dishes mindfully (they focused on smelling the soap, feeling the water temperature and touching the dishes) upped their feelings of inspiration by 25% and lowered their nervousness levels by 27%.
The group that didn’t wash the dishes mindfully did not gain any benefits from the task. “It appears that an everyday activity approached with intentionality and awareness may enhance the state of mindfulness,” the study authors conclude.
Spirituality of Chores
I’m not going to pretend that there’s actually some sort of meaning in our daily chores. The truth is that the expectation of meaning is what robs life of greater meaning.
The spirituality comes from you. When you pay attention to the meals you cook, the clothes you wash. Carefully paid attention is our way of expressing care and love. To complete the menial and mundane tasks in order to show that we care about our environment and our loved ones in this environment. Most importantly, to show that we care enough about ourselves to work on our surroundings
Cleaning and decluttering can — and should — be mindful practices. To practice living in the present moment. Each time you do a chore, imagine as though you’re doing this chore for the first time. Instead of looking at a sinkful of dirty dishes, look for the bubbles instead.
“If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have a cup of tea, then I will be incapable of drinking the tea joyfully.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
Gratitude and Compassion
As I’ve written about before, our lives are an endless amount of tasks where we never find time to ourselves. Rarely do we actually and honestly focus on our task at hand. When we do find ourselves idle, we often daydream about an impossible future, dwell on the past, or make fruitless judgments about the world and people in it.
Even more seldom is when we take time out to practice our gratitude in life, a key to happiness. Each moment spent taking care of our surroundings can be a joyful wonder if one takes the time to be grateful about the task.
How lucky we are to even just have the things that we need to clean, how lucky we are to be able to find the time to ourselves. Pay attention to yourself, your body and mind and how they’re acting. There’s nothing more important than searching for things to be grateful for in the present.
There are times — sometimes the majority of it — where no amount of mediation or philosophical thinking can cause you to do what needs to be done. Sometimes, you just need grit your teeth and do it.
This applies to everything, even the things we think we enjoy doing. Writing, for instance, is a lofty and common dream. But the task of writing the first draft is so daunting that it’s elusive to most would-be writers.
We don’t want to write, but we should. If not for the act itself, then for the result. To quote Josh Spilker:
Do I have to do dishes every day? Technically, no. But things are easier when I do, no matter how much I don’t want to.