This year, one of my goals is to attend my first residential meditation retreat. These retreats, conducted mostly in silence, always include a daily period of what the meditation centers call mindful work. Retreat participants might wash dishes, sweep the floors, reorganize the meditation cushions, or whatever else needs to be done when hundreds of people are eating, sleeping, walking, and meditating together in the same space.
Ah, I thought to myself, how pleasant to do mindful chores with my fellow meditators. To contribute to the community, help create order and beauty around us as part of our practice.
And that’s when it occurred to me that I might have an opportunity to begin the practice of mindful work before attending my retreat. That in fact, I have this opportunity every day, and when it arrives I’m not always thrilled about it.
I think it’s pretty safe to say I have a problem with household chores. Doing them makes me grumpy and irritable. There’s a significant part of me that believes I simply shouldn’t have to do this kind of thing. And then there’s the endlessness of the tasks themselves! It’s maddening to do dishes when you know that two days later, the very same dishes will again need to be done. Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill, etc.
This reluctance to accept the reality of housework reminds me a little of my constant struggle to keep track of my phone, wallet, keys, and other important “little things”. I remember telling my mother that I was very good at keeping certain things organized in my mind, but not the little things. “There are no little things,” she told me. And she had a point. Certainly these things did not seem so little when I was running around my apartment in a gigantic range trying to find them. “Your mind is classifying them as unimportant,” she said, “and that’s part of the problem.”
So, in an evolution of my spiritual journey that is sure to please my (much better about chores) husband, I am making housework part of my mindfulness practice. I am beginning to recognize that being willing to do simple housework tasks indicates a willingness to accept the reality of your life and take care of yourself and your home. It’s an act of stewardship, and also an act that acknowledges that if you don’t do it, someone else is going to have to. I guess this is why all the Buddhist monks do their own cleaning.
Today in the kitchen, I puttered around after lunch, loading the dishwasher, cleaning off the countertops, and even sweeping the floor – an unusual move for me. And I remembered my mother. During one particular visit to our old home on East Street, I remember realizing just how much time she spent in the kitchen cleaning up after the delicious meals she had prepared for us. During that visit, it seemed that she was always in the kitchen, chatting and hanging out as she put things back in their places.
Putting things back where they belong has always been a struggle for me. My mind simply moves along to the next task, leaving behind me a maddening trail of dishes, open books, and half-finished pieces of toast. Hours later, I’ll take a glance at the kitchen table and think to myself, “my gosh, that stuff is still there?”
I’m learning a bit more about how my mind works. Hopefully by the time I do get to my retreat, mindful housework will already be part of my life.